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Hyperion Records

CDA67722 - Haydn: String Quartets Op 17
The Thames and the Tower of London supposedly on the King's Birthday (detail) (1771) by Samuel Scott (c1702-1772)
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund, USA / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: August 2008
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Ben Turner
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: June 2009
Total duration: 147 minutes 22 seconds


'These musicians arrest attention by the variety of their bowing and articulation. They lean into notes, swelling and contracting the sound … to heighten the potential for expression … a very imaginative interpretation' (Gramophone)

'Those who want a 'period' performance should not hesitate—they are unlikely to hear any better of its kind. Articulation is light, precise yet full of nuance; vibrato is scarcely detectable yet intonation is immaculate; the whole texture shines' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Playing with gut strings and classical bows, the London Haydn Quartet bring both freshness and depth to the six works that the composer wrote at Esterhazy in 1771' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Gut strings sometimes mean sour intonation, but not with this superb British group. Formed out of love for Haydn, they explore his repertoire with a light touch and kaleidoscopic colours. This second Hyperion survey brings the six Op 17 quartets … crammed with subtle pleasures. A set to bring long-lasting pleasure' (The Times)

'This splendid recording … Catherine Manson brings a nice rubato to the violin's flight in the first movement of Quartet No 5, and makes the most of the operatic recitative in the Adagio' (Classic FM Magazine)

'These superb LHQ performances set the standard for Haydn interpretation, yet the two CDs are available for the price of one' (MusicWeb International)

String Quartets Op 17
performed from the London edition published by Welcker circa 1774
Moderato  [8'52]
Adagio cantabile  [6'44]
Allegro  [5'34]
Andante grazioso  [7'33]
Adagio  [11'09]
Allegro di molto  [3'47]
Moderato  [7'52]
Adagio  [6'33]
Allegro molto  [4'42]
Moderato  [12'27]
Adagio  [9'40]
Presto  [5'11]
Moderato  [10'36]
Adagio  [5'14]
Presto  [3'23]
Presto  [6'24]
Largo  [5'29]
Finale: Allegro  [3'59]

Haydn’s String Quartets Op 17 were written during his most effusively productive period, during his tenure in the service of the Esterházy family. He had a magnificent group of musicians at his disposal, including the young virtuoso violinist Luigi Tomasini, whose genius can be traced throughout these works, particularly in the achingly beautiful melodies of the adagio movements. These string quartets mark Haydn’s emergence as an indisputably great composer. They have a seriousness of intent and an increasing mastery of rhetoric and thematic development that are a world away from the lightweight divertimento-quartets that he was formerly producing.

They are performed here on period instruments by the dazzling London Haydn Quartet, whose disc of the Op 9 quartets drew the most extravagant praise from the critics. Their second disc has been eagerly awaited, and comes as part of Hyperion’s celebrations of ‘Haydn year’.

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Haydn stumbled on the form of the string quartet ‘by accident’ (his own words) when he composed a clutch of Divertimenti a quattro for summer music parties at the country estate of his early patron, Carl Joseph von Fürnberg. According to the composer’s early biographer, Albert Christoph Dies, these breezy little quartets from the mid- to late-1750s, published as Op 1 and Op 2, ‘won him the increasing favour of amateur musicians, so that he became recognized everywhere as a genius’. They circulated rapidly throughout Europe in manuscript and unauthorized printed copies (strict copyright laws lay far in the future), and, more than any of his other early works, sowed the seeds of Haydn’s international fame. Yet far from capitalizing on their success, the so-called ‘father of the string quartet’ composed no more works in the quartet medium for a decade. These were Haydn’s first years in the service of the Esterházy family, dominated by the intensive production of symphonies and, from 1766, opera, church music and music for the baryton, a kind of viola da gamba with additional sympathetic strings that became an unlikely obsession of Prince Nicolaus.

But when Haydn returned to the string quartet, 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 catalogue 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 a seriousness of intent and an increasing mastery of rhetoric and thematic development that are a world away from the lightweight divertimento-quartets of the 1750s.

We can only guess what prompted this sudden effusion of quartet writing around 1769. Perhaps the initial impetus came from Prince Nicolaus after he had heard or played works from Op 1 and Op 2 (he was a more than passable violinist), or quartets by contemporaries such as Vanhal, D’Ordoñez and Boccherini. Maybe Haydn’s experience of turning out reams of baryton trios for the prince 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. Crucial, too, was the presence of the young virtuoso violinist Luigi Tomasini, leader of the Esterházy orchestra and, we may guess, of the ad hoc court string quartet, with Haydn playing second violin and Joseph Weigl (for whom Haydn wrote his famous C major Cello Concerto) as cellist.

Op 9 and Op 17 have far more in common with each other than either does with the more heterogeneous Op 20 quartets. In both sets four of the first movements are in spacious Moderato tempo, with a leisurely basic pulse to allow room for elaborate figuration for all the instruments, especially the first violin. As in Op 9, one of the Op 17 first movements (No 3) is a slowish set of variations, while another (No 6) is a bounding 6/8 Presto. Minuets invariably come second; and the slow movements (either Adagio or Largo) are in essence wordless arias, designed to show off the sweetness of Tomasini’s tone and his ‘taste’ (an eighteenth-century critical buzzword) in shading and embellishing his line. As in Op 9, the most immediately appealing movements tend to be the finales: spirited, puckish, and typically containing more democratic interplay—what we think of as ‘true’ quartet style—than any of the earlier movements.

Despite the obvious similarities, the Moderato first movements of the underrated Op 17 set are on the whole less showy, and more attractive melodically, than those of Op 9. True to its radiant key of E major, No 1, fertilized by its vernal opening theme, is tender rather than brilliant in style, with more varied textures than in any of the Op 9 first movements. Midway through the movement Haydn fleetingly deceives us into thinking the recapitulation has begun, before developing the theme’s second ‘limb’ in beautiful sequences (with a moment of glory for the cellist) that lead to the recapitulation proper. The minuet, alternating chunky imitative writing and passages where the first violin hovers above shifting harmonies, is one of Haydn’s most powerfully developed to date. Its mysterious trio, in E minor, looks back to the Baroque in its gliding polyphonic textures, presented in free ‘retrograde’ inversion in the closing bars: a half-echo, perhaps, as Rosemary Hughes suggests in her BBC Music Guide to the Haydn quartets, of a motet that Haydn had sung as a choirboy at St Stephen’s in Vienna. The Adagio, likewise in E minor, is a siciliano with dreamy suspensions, while the finale mingles quirky exuberance (its main theme consists of five-bar phrases plus a bar’s rest) and—in the B minor ‘second subject’—a touch of Balkan folk melancholy. Like the finales of Nos 3, 5 and 6, the movement ends in whisper.

Of all the first movements of Op 17, that of No 2 comes closest to the flamboyant, first-violin-dominated style of Op 9. Yet Haydn provides plenty of interest for the lower parts, whether in the immediate expansion of the ardent main (and virtually sole) theme, the tight contrapuntal weave at the opening of the development, or the poetic deflection to F minor near the start of the recapitulation. The minuet, growing from ‘rustic’ two-part writing to a full four-part texture, is as imposing as that in No 1. The trio wittily reinterprets the final phrase of the minuet, reharmonizing it (in D minor rather than F major), and then developing it in imitative sequences for first and second violins. After a touching Adagio that could have strayed from a violin concerto, the finale draws ever-new meanings from its laconic opening motif, transmuting it into a lyrical second theme and then working it in a free contrapuntal texture, kick-started by the cello.

The first movement of the E flat major quartet, No 3, subjects a homely theme to four decorative variations that gave Tomasini ample scope to display his ‘taste’ and virtuosity. The minuet, saturated by its opening motif, deals in odd phrase lengths. Only at the very end do we get a balanced four-bar phrase, sounded pianissimo by the first violin in its highest register. The picturesquely scored trio (opening with second violin and cello two octaves apart, against viola drones and oscillating first-violin figuration) simultaneously evokes bagpipes and pealing bells. Although the Adagio, in A flat, is once again essentially a wordless aria for Tomasini, its textures and harmonies (at one point touching the esoteric regions of G flat major and minor) are richer than in any of the other Op 17 slow movements. The entertaining finale, too, is one of the best in the set. Haydn is soon working its chattering theme in airy imitation, and then tightens the contrapuntal weave further in the development.

Like Op 9, Op 17 includes one work in the minor key. Haydn’s minor-mode works from the years around 1770 are famed for their rhetorical intensity, sometimes turbulent, sometimes—as in the opening Moderato of Op 17 No 4—mingling agitation with pathos. The movement grows from a rising three-note motif that fleetingly suggests E flat major rather than C minor. Each time it recurs the motif pivots the music in unexpected directions. Haydn twice delays the anticipated start of the recapitulation, initially in a passage of ethereal canonic imitation, with the lower instruments following the first violin at a bar’s distance. The coda brings a last-second glint of C major, though minor-keyed tensions are never truly resolved. It is only with the sonorous minuet, founded on the cello’s deep C string, that C major is firmly established. But C minor returns in the syncopated, contrapuntal trio, with its wailing dissonances. In the Adagio, in E flat, Haydn adopts the ‘varied reprise’ form of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (second son of J S), repeating the opening section with florid embellishments from the leader. Opening with a crabbed, angular four-note motif that suggests (and later receives) strenuous contrapuntal treatment, the finale matches the first movement in concentrated power, right through to a coda that softens momentarily into A flat major over a cello pedal—a haunting moment—before the peremptory C minor close.

The sturdy opening of the G major quartet, No 5, with its flicking ‘Scotch snap’ rhythms, points the way to the more egalitarian textures of the famous Op 20 set by quickly involving all four instruments in the motivic interplay. Then, near the end of the exposition, Haydn gives Tomasini his head in a bravura passage of double-stopping. To offset the expansive development, ending with a quasi-improvisatory passage for solo first violin, the recapitulation drastically compresses the events of the exposition. The tangy minuet, full of metrically disruptive canonic imitations, encloses an inscrutable G minor trio that leads back without a break into the minuet. G minor is also the key of the Adagio, where the first violin impersonates an imploring opera seria heroine in alternating arioso and recitative, the latter uncannily foreshadowing the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Haydn exploits the catchy theme of the finale, given a gentle rhythmic ‘kick’ by the viola, with impish wit, right through to the conspiratorial pianissimo ending.

Like its predecessor in Op 9 No 6, the 6/8 first movement of the D major quartet, No 6, conjures up the chase, though with an added harmonic adventurousness (the ‘second subject’ slips via A minor to C major) and quicksilver variety of texture. Haydn would fruitfully mine this vein again the following year in the opening movement of Op 20 No 6. After this delightful, capricious Presto, the minuet, with its frequent pedal points, is the most sedate in Op 17. The Largo, opening with a long-held note, a favourite gambit in opera seria arias, is another showcase for Tomasini, with an improvised cadenza at the end. Conversely, of all the movements in Op 17, the finale, with its chuckling, quickfire exchanges, is the most consistently democratic in texture, and hardly suffers by comparison with its counterpart in Op 20 No 4. There is also a foretaste of the famous ‘Frog’ Quartet, Op 50 No 6, in the first violin’s gypsy-flavoured bariolage—rapid repetitions of the same note played alternately on open and fingered strings. The pianissimo ending, isolating and inverting a two-note figure from the theme, is one of the most nonchalantly witty in all Haydn.

Richard Wigmore © 2009

Other albums in this series
'Haydn: String Quartets Op 9' (CDA67611)
Haydn: String Quartets Op 9
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67611  2CDs for the price of 1  
'Haydn: String Quartets Op 20' (CDA67877)
Haydn: String Quartets Op 20
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67877  2CDs for the price of 1  
'Haydn: String Quartets Op 33' (CDA67955)
Haydn: String Quartets Op 33
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67955  2CDs for the price of 1   Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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