Haydn: String Quartets op. 64

The London String Quartet
145:21 (2 CDs in a single jewel case)
hyperion CDA68221

This is the seventh in a series that on completion will be a complete cycle of the Haydn string quartets played by the London Haydn Quartet (Catherine Manson and Michael Gurevich [violins], John Crockatt [viola] and Jonathan Manson [cello]). The second of two sets originally issued with a dedication to the Esterháza violinist Johann Tost, the six quartets of opus 64 were composed in 1790, being the last Haydn produced before the first of his London visits. To the great Haydn scholar H C Robbins Landon they represent the composers’ ‘greatest single achievement’ of the period, being ‘six flawless masterpieces’ and I for one am not inclined to disagree. Like the previous set composed for Tost (op 54 and 55) they are characterised by the prominence of the first violin part, and in particular the frequent examples of high lying writing, for the playing of which Tost was apparently especially noted. The famous example here is of course the imitation of the song of the lark in the opening movement of the eponymous D-major quartet (no. 5). It is therefore odd to find Richard Wigmore’s note asserting that there is no evidence to suggest that the first violin part was designed with Tost in mind.

There are, however, many more equally remarkable features in these wonderful quartets. The invention throughout maintains a remarkably high level, suggesting that even as he approached high maturity as a composer Haydn was still probing and experimenting with new ideas. One notes for example the extensive use of chromaticism, not infrequently combined with contrapuntal writing, or the greater freedom of continuing to develop themes in the recapitulation of sonata form movements – a characteristic more usually associated with Mozart than Haydn – as in the opening Allego con brio of the G-major quartet (no. 4), where the further variation of the opening motif is actually more interesting than the development itself. Equally noteworthy are the sublime cantabile movements of the same quartet and the ‘Lark’, the first a hymn-like tune later lovingly embellished, the latter another ineffably lovely movement that moves from its opening serenity to explore darker regions.

That movement, played and phrased with quite exquisite sensitivity, is one of the highpoints of a set of performance notable above all for their consistent musicality, a musicality that throughout eschews extremes of dynamics and tempo. They are indeed performances that stand at the opposite pole to such as those of the Chiaroscuro Quartet, to whose attention-grabbing and excitingly insightful Haydn I have devoted several reviews on this site. That is certainly not intended as criticism of the London Haydn Quartet, though there are occasions when they might have made rather more of the composer’s dynamic contrasts. But there is certainly no lack of character, as the witty, fleet playing the Presto finale of the E-flat quartet (no. 6) or the Mendelssohnian lightness of touch and precise articulation of the final Vivace of the ‘Lark’ convincingly demonstrate.

The use of a set of parts from an 18th century edition by the London publisher Forster is curious, not least because the notes tell us nothing about it, not even its date. It is not among editions mentioned by Robbins Landon, who lists as an ‘authentic British edition’ only a publication of the quartets published by Bland in 1791. Obviously I have no means of comparing it with my version of the quartets (Dover). I did however note several instances where second half repeat indications of sonata form movements vary, for example in the Quartet in C (no. 1), where no repeat is called for at the end of the opening movement, but given here, while the final movement does call for one in the Dover score, but it is not given here.

Ultimately, of course, such things are of little concern, particularly in the face of such quietly rewarding performances, recorded with the same refreshing lack of ostentation that is a principal feature of the playing.

Brian Robins

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