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Hyperion Records

CDA67611 - Haydn: String Quartets Op 9
Vauxhall Gardens: The Grand Walk with the Orchestra Playing by Samuel Wale (1721-1786)
Museum of London / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67611

Recording details: February 2007
St Paul's Church, Deptford, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ben Turner
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: October 2007
DISCID: A00EF80C B910330C
Total duration: 131 minutes 15 seconds

'I quickly warmed to the pure, glowing sound of gut strings played perfectly in tune, and to the ensemble's delicacy of nuance and sensitivity to harmonic colour, treating the listener as a privileged eavesdropper … Catherine Manson is a graceful and nimble leader … the results are delightfully witty and spirited. Recorded in the warm, sympatheic acoustic of St Paul's Deptford, these performances should win new friends for an undeservedly neglected set' (Gramophone)

'A sonority that seems brighter and less astringent than that produced by 'period' ensembles, but one that is still far closer to what we assume to be the timbre of an eighteenth-century quartet … Hyperion's sound is ideal: close, clear and free of harshness and any intrusive breathing. In short, this is an interesting and possibly controversial release, but one that shows The London Haydn Quartet to be thoughtful, provocative and technically accomplished' (International Record Review)

'Without a doubt one of the all-time great Haydn quartet recordings … the original instrument London Haydn Quartet play Op 9 with such deep feeling, dynamic subtlety and phrasal sensitivity that even the simplest of ideas become things of wonder. Passages of generic cadencing and decoration that often pass by unacknowledged by other ensembles sound utterly magical here, the enhanced expressive flexibility of gut strings revelled in to the full' (Classic FM Magazine)

'The London Haydn Quartet plays lovely period instruments in a gentle manner, emphasizing the beauty of the music—highly evocative' (Fanfare, USA)

'On this superb double disc set from Hyperion, the London Haydn Quartet's playing of the set is intense, passionate and revelatory. It is difficult to imagine finer interpretations of these occasionally formulaic but always melodically colourful works. The quartet—comprising Catherine Manson and Margaret Faultless on violin, James Boyd on viola and Jonathan Cohen on cello—play on gut strings with classical bows. There is to be found none of the reserve or prissiness that can sometimes characterise period performance. The sound here is bright, resonant and gritty, the lack of vibrato adding a spicy, piquant tang to the ensemble timbre. The bowing is confident; tempi are firm and steady, yet subtle inflections and rhythmic manipulations crank up the drama to breaking point' (MusicOHM.com)

String Quartets Op 9
performed from the 1790 London edition published by Longman and Broderip
CD1
Moderato  [8'28]
Menuetto  [4'15]
Cantabile adagio  [3'54]
Presto  [3'28]
Moderato  [8'52]
Adagio  [7'15]
Presto  [3'59]
Moderato  [7'06]
Menuetto  [2'53]
Largo  [6'07]
Presto  [3'33]
CD2
Moderato  [12'51]
Menuetto  [2'33]
Allegro di molto  [3'02]
Poco adagio  [7'25]
Cantabile largo  [10'18]
Presto  [5'19]
Presto  [5'19]
Menuetto  [4'30]
Adagio  [8'29]
Allegro  [1'26]

Haydn’s Op 9 quartets are commonly seen as his first ‘mature’ set, written during the period when he emerged as an indisputably great composer. They have an amplitude, a seriousness of intent and an increasing mastery of rhetoric and thematic development that are a world away from his earlier works. They demonstrate the dazzling inventiveness and sense of symphonic structure which characterize Haydn’s greatest works.

The London Haydn Quartet perform on gut strings with classical bows, and have returned to eighteenth-century editions of the quartets, allowing them the greatest variety of interpretative possibilities.


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If the old cliché of Haydn as ‘the father of the symphony’ no longer holds good, his status as the father of the string quartet has never been seriously challenged. Not that he composed the first string quartet of all: before Haydn alighted on the genre in the mid- to late 1750s, there had been spasmodic examples of divertimentos for two solo violins, viola and cello by such Viennese composers as Ignaz Holzbauer and Georg Christoph Wagenseil; and there had long existed a tradition of performing orchestral works with one instrument to a part. But these older composers showed no interest in investigating the potential of the string quartet as a medium. It fell to Haydn—who, by his own admission, stumbled on the form ‘by accident’—to raise the quartet from its humble beginnings in the outdoor serenade to a vehicle for the most sophisticated and challenging musical discourse.

After the breezy divertimenti a Quattro (Haydn’s description) of Op 1 and Op 2, composed for summer quartet parties on the estate of his early patron, Baron Fürnberg, came a gap of around a decade. These were Haydn’s first years in the service of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy, dominated by the intensive production of symphonies and, later, church music and music for the baryton, a curious kind of viola da gamba with additional sympathetic strings that became a passionate obsession of the Prince’s. But when Haydn returned to the quartet medium, he did so with a vengeance, producing in quick succession the three sets of Op 9 (c1769), Op 17 (1771) and Op 20 (1772) which mark the string quartet’s coming of age. Indeed, late in life Haydn said he wanted his series of quartets to begin only with Op 9. Although still dubbed Divertimenti a quattro, these works, written during the period when Haydn emerged as an indisputably great composer, have an amplitude, a seriousness of intent and an increasing mastery of rhetoric and thematic development that are a world away from the lightweight quartets of the 1750s.

We don’t know what prompted this sudden effusion of quartet-writing. Haydn was doubtless aware of the popularity of his Op 1 and Op 2 in France, Austria and southern Germany (less so in north Germany, where po-faced critics accused him of ‘debasing music with comic fooling’), and saw the potential for enhancing his rapidly growing reputation. Perhaps his experience of writing baryton trios by the bushel for Prince Nicolaus from 1765 onwards had made him eager to explore, in a less limited medium, the possibilities of interplay between solo strings, with the cello emancipated from its traditional continuo role. Significant, too, was the presence of the brilliant young violinist Luigi Tomasini, leader of the Esterházy orchestra and, we may guess, of the ad hoc court string quartet, with Haydn as second violinist. Tomasini was renowned for his pure, sweet tone and virtuosic panache. In the Op 9 quartets, especially, the often florid, almost concerto-like first violin parts were surely calculated to show off the fire, agility and ‘taste’ (an eighteenth-century buzzword) of his playing.

Whereas the serenade-like Op 1 and Op 2 quartets had contained five brief movements, including two minuets, the quartets of Op 9 proclaim their more serious, symphonic purpose in weighty four-movement structures. The first four of the set have an identical ground plan. Their monothematic opening movements are spacious and dignified, with a leisurely basic pulse (all are marked Moderato) to allow space for elaborate figuration, especially for the first violin. Those in Nos 1 and 3 sound more like Boccherini than almost any other music by Haydn. The minuet and trio invariably come second, followed by a slow movement conceived as an aria for Tomasini, complete with improvised cadenza near the end. Finales are terse, spirited, often witty, and typically contain more democratic interplay—what we think of as ‘true’ quartet style—than any of the earlier movements.

The first movement of No 1 exploits the sonorous richness characteristic of string music in C major, founded on the distinctive resonance of the cello’s open C string, not least in the musette-like drones near the beginning. Its narrative is dominated by the boldly plunging opening theme, immediately varied by the first violin (scope here for Tomasini’s fantasy) and later reworked in imitative dialogue as a ‘second subject’. Deep pedal points feature prominently both here and in the minuet, where Haydn plays one of his favourite games: an opening phrase that serves equally well as a closing gesture. The glumly inscrutable trio, in C minor, never comes to a formal close, but instead hovers on the dominant of C, underpinned by yet another cello pedal point. In the beguiling, siciliano-style Adagio the second violin occasionally adds its own voice to the leader’s increasingly ornate serenade. The Presto finale bursts in with an exuberant, leaping theme that Mozart surely remembered in the finale of his ‘Linz’ Symphony, and continues with lively repartee on a sinuous chromatic figure. But whereas in later years Haydn would have exploited the contrapuntal potential of the main theme, here the development is largely given over to toccata-style fireworks for Tomasini.

Perhaps the most striking feature of No 2’s opening Moderato is the beautiful harmonic ‘purple patch’ towards the end of the exposition. After the leader has vaulted into the stratosphere, motion is suddenly suspended as the music darkens from B flat major (the dominant of the home key, E flat), through B flat minor, to a haunting, pianissimo G flat, before B flat is re-asserted with a flurry of skittering triplets. With its chromatic inner lines, the minuet is the suavest and, to our ears, the most ‘Mozartian’ in the Op 9 quartets. A few years later Haydn reused its theme as the basis of a set of keyboard variations. The rhapsodic opening of the C minor Adagio sounds like a keyboard improvisation transcribed for strings. Then, with a change to triple metre, the leader spins a sorrowful song, like an opera seria aria translated into instrumental terms. The finale’s catchy, syncopated subject turns up at the start of the development with a witty exchange of roles (the syncopations now in the cello), and then re-enters after just eight bars in the home key of E flat. But what initially seems to be one of Haydn’s ‘false recapitulations’ turns out to be the real thing after all, duly celebrated in a bout of gleeful repartee for all four instruments.

More than any other movement in Op 9, the opening Moderato of the G major quartet, No 3, often sounds like a brilliant violin concerto scaled down for chamber forces. Only at the end of the development do the lower instruments emerge from their accompanying role and become equal partners in a passage of close-knit counterpoint. The minuet trades on bare two-part writing, with the first and second violins playing in octaves, a ‘primitive’, quasi-rustic texture carried over from the Opp 1 and 2 quartets. Haydn then plays rhythmic games in the trio, with the first violin insisting on duple metre against the repeatedly accented triple time of the lower instruments. In her 1966 BBC Music Guide to the Haydn quartets Rosemary Hughes rightly praised the ‘noble seriousness’ of the Largo, with its eloquent theme gravely coloured by the violin’s G string and its dreamy triplet figuration. If this is one of the most beautiful slow movements in Op 9, the finale is surely the wittiest. Haydn manipulates the two ‘limbs’ of the folk-like main theme in all sorts of unexpected ways, and starts the recapitulation in the unscripted key of E minor before quickly slipping to G major as if nothing had happened.

The most famous—or, perhaps more accurately, the least neglected—quartet in the set is No 4 in D minor, probably the first to be written, and Haydn’s first quartet in the minor. In the Classical period, far more than in the early eighteenth century, the minor mode was associated with a special rhetorical intensity and the expression of sorrowful or turbulent emotion. With its disquieting pauses, ‘pathetic’ sighing appoggiaturas and extreme dynamic contrasts, the first movement of No 4 evokes the empfindsamer Stil, or ‘heightened sensibility’, of CPE Bach. But this music is also more rigorously argued than any of the other Op 9 first movements, through the powerful development (dominated by a three-note fluttering figure that may remind listeners of Mozart’s G minor symphony, No 40) to the drastically compressed recapitulation.

Equally powerful is the minuet, which a few years later became the direct model for the teenaged Mozart in his D minor quartet, K173. As so often in Haydn’s minuets from this period onwards, this is pointedly written against the grain of the traditional courtly dance. The phrase structure is asymmetrical, the tonality restless, with cadences asking new questions rather than resolving (the first section seems to be settling in F major but then slews round to a ‘tensing’ A minor). The pianissimo final bars allude unmistakably to the first movement’s pervasive ‘fluttering’ motif. Harmonic balm comes with the D major trio, composed as a ‘trio’ for the two violins, with the first playing in double stopping throughout. As Hans Keller pointed out in his classic study of the great Haydn quartets (London and New York, 1986), the double stopping creates a fuller sonority, with richer overtones, than would be possible if the same notes were played on two instruments.

The Cantabile adagio, in B flat, is another aria-serenade for Tomasini, a point of relaxation between two highly charged D minor movements. Following the example of C P E Bach’s ‘varied reprises’, the first section is delicately embellished on its repeat. The 6/8 finale, back in D minor, begins as if it were a fugue (the minor mode was closely associated with ‘learned’ counterpoint in the 1760s and 1770s) and continues with bantering scherzando textures. But levity is banished from the development, with its grimly striding arpeggios, and the recapitulation, even more violently compressed than that in the first movement and reaffirming D minor right through to its brusque unison close.

In Nos 5 and 6 Haydn abandons the serious, weighty Moderatos of the first four quartets for lighter, popular-style opening movements. The B flat quartet, No 5, begins with a set of variations on a rather homely Poco adagio theme. Following a long-established convention, the ornamental figuration becomes progressively more brilliant in the first three variations, while the final variation brings back the tune in its original simplicity. Only in the elegant dialogue textures of variation two is the first violin’s hegemony briefly challenged. The minuet, kick-started by a typically Austrian gruppetto figure familiar from the minuets of several late Haydn symphonies (most famously the ‘Drum Roll’, No 103), is the most bucolically lusty in Op 9. In the Cantabile largo Haydn exploits the rich, warm colourings characteristic of the key of E flat, and gives the three lower instruments a far more interesting time than in the other Op 9 slow movements. The exposition of the Presto finale—the quartet’s only movement in sonata form—ends quizzically on a dominant seventh chord. Haydn repeats this effect at the end of the recapitulation, necessitating a resolving coda that wittily alludes to the development before fading away pianissimo.

With its bounding opening Presto in 6/8 time and featherweight finale, the A major quartet that rounds off the Op 9 set is something of a jeu d’esprit. Hunting calls and musette drones give the first movement a delightful alfresco flavour. While the minuet is the most leisurely and galant of the six, the trio, in A minor, is the most sophisticated, quirkily irregular in its phrasing, and teasing the listener with silence and unexpected turns of harmony. The Adagio, a graceful bel canto aria underpinned by murmuring triplets, is yet another vehicle for Tomasini to display his sweet tone and refined taste. For his envoi Haydn writes a fleeting, frolicking Presto in binary dance form, plus a disproportionately long coda (21 bars out of a total of 53) that comically protracts the final cadence.

Richard Wigmore © 2007


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