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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets - Volume 11
Quartet in E flat, Op.17 No.3 [19:39]
Quartet in G, Op.17. No.5 [21:47]
Quartet in E, Op.17 No.1 [24:25]
Leipzig String Quartet
rec. 2019, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany
MDG 307 2141-2 [65:51]

Despite the fact that this is the 11th in the series, I have not previously come across the Leipzig Quartet’s recordings of Haydn String Quartets for Dabringhaus und Grimm. Since vol.1 dates way back to 2008, it is clearly going to be a long-drawn-out process, but judging by my various colleagues’ responses to some earlier volumes in the series, it also seems to be evolving slowly into a viable contender in the fairly crowded field of Haydn string quartet recordings. If the evidence of this latest release is anything to go by, this is now a very worthwhile Haydn series, for here we have some distinguished playing as well as a very fine recording. I will certainly be on the lookout for subsequent releases; although at the rate at which they are appearing, I am beginning to doubt whether it will have reached its conclusion within my lifetime.

If there is rhyme or reason to the sequence of releases, I am not privy to it, and with vol.11 we jump back from three of the Op.64 quartets released in 2018 as vol.10 (for the record, the other Op.64 quartets are to be found on vol.5 which dates back to 2012) to the Op.17 quartets; just three of them, the other three (numbers 2,4 and 6) have not yet appeared in this series.

Numbered 17-22 in the most recent chronology of Haydn’s quartets and, sequentially different, 25-30 in Hoboken’s catalogue, the Op.17 quartets were published as a set in 1771, some 10 years, as the booklet note suggests, into his string quartet writing career. They were among 18 quartets (subsequently published as opp. 9,17 and 20) probably written for the Esterházy orchestra led by Luigi Tomasini. That Haydn was at the same time heavily involved in producing operas for the Esterházy family is evidenced through many quasi-operatic gestures found in these three quartets.

The overriding message given by the Leipzig Quartet’s interpretation of these three quartets is of charm and innocence. The simple yet endearing theme which launches Op.17 No.3 is subjected to a set of charming and generally innocent variations, often dominated by the first violin which (played here by Stefan Arzberger) soars almost bird-like above the fluttering accompaniment of Tilman Büning, Ivo Bauer and Matthias Moosdorf. Much of the clarity and openness of this playing is created by their general absence of vibrato, and while the dynamic range is limited and other expressive gestures are kept largely in abeyance, the performances have a lovely sense of logic and musical shape resulting from some careful and neatly coordinated phrasing and articulation. I particularly like the almost sliding legato for the Op.17 No.3 Menuetto as well as the rusticity they bring to its strangely hollow Trio.

With the opening theme of Op.17, No.5 there is a tendency for the phrasing to sound too pedantic, but with the slow movement we do get a moment of real emotional depth, and the Leipzigers bring this across most effectively through their careful spacing, allowing ample space for Arzberger’s recitative-like grief-laden passages of florid reflection. Their gentle handling of the ensuing Presto allows us to ease gently back into an upbeat mood without too violent a change of gear.

There is a slightly stop-and-start feel to the opening of Op.17 No1, but here the recording comes to the rescue with just enough acoustic surround to blunt the sharp edges, and when the movement gets into its stride it has a lovely relaxed feel, despite some pretty florid outbursts from the 1st violin. In many ways this is one of the most operatic movements of them all, with moments of drama and conflicting emotions, yet the performance retains a strong sense of poise and emotional stability. The Menuetto is a delightful courtly-dance which is delivered here with a sprightly spring in its step, while the following Adagio also has a feel of a courtly dance, the cello of Matthias Moosdorf delicately stepping along under some beautifully clear passagework from the upper strings.

Marc Rochester

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