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Hyperion Records

CDA67781 - Haydn: String Quartets Op 74
A Storm in the Rocky Mountains – Mt Rosalie (1866) by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: Various dates
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: November 2011
Total duration: 63 minutes 41 seconds


'The musicians' excellent internal balancing allows every note and expressive gesture to speak' (Gramophone)

'Hyperion's wonderful recording … has remarkable clarity, focus and spatial realism … [Op 74 No 1] The finale … is wonderfully brought off by the Takács, with the players relishing Haydn's bravura passagework and near-orchestral sonorities, while the cello's drone-bass effects later on have real humour … there is a similarly highly-charged reading of the stunning Presto finale of Op 74 No 2, one of Haydn's virtuoso essays in quartet writing' (International Record Review)

'The musicians' clarity of line and perfect balance, well reflected in Hyperion's recording … after these magnificent CDs, if the Takács wanted to record Haydn's other 62 quartets, I wouldn't raise a hand to stop them' (The Times)

'Led by the Englishman Edward Dusinberre—who relishes the virtuosity Haydn demanded of Salomon—the Takacs play this ever-surprising music with their characteristic imagination, contrapuntal rigour, sensitivity to texture and colour, and, in the dizzying finales, wit. They are the epitome of Goethe's four intelligent conversationalists, always fresh in their response to Haydn's astonishing inventiveness' (The Sunday Times)

'Does it need saying that they're awfully good? Here is Haydn in all his inexhaustible moods and guises … a constant source of wonder … the Takács players have the magical gift of playing them so that they seem absolutely right … a naïve elegance pervades the Andante grazioso of Op 74 No 1, played with apparent, and deceptive, simplicity … these two discs are a constant and rewarding delight' (The Strad)

String Quartets Op 74
Allegro  [6'36]
Vivace  [5'32]
Andante grazioso  [6'58]
Presto  [3'59]
Allegro  [5'19]
Largo assai  [6'04]
Allegro con brio  [5'47]

These quartets date from 1793 and were written when Haydn returned home to Vienna after a visit to London which had cemented his international fame as a composer and public figure.

The composer wrote a set of six string quartets for Count Anton Apponyi, a chamberlain at the Imperial Court. The set was broken up into two groups of three and sold to separate publishers, thus becoming the Op 71 and Op 74 Quartets, both released this month by the acclaimed Takács Quartet.

The quartets possess an orchestral sonority, and the frequent modulations, dynamic variations and increasingly virtuosic writing can be derived from elements of the six London Symphonies. They demonstrate the composer’s astonishing elegance, lyricism and his immense skill in fusing the profound with the light-hearted.

In these compelling interpretations the Takács Quartet display an absolute unanimity of tone and style and cement their reputation as one of today’s greatest string quartets.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
When Haydn returned to Vienna following his first London visit of 1791–2, he took with him the experience of having heard some of his latest string quartets, Op 64, performed at the subscription concerts organized by the impresario and violinist Johann Peter Salomon. The inclusion in public concerts of chamber music containing no obvious concertante element seems to have been an English speciality. Certainly, in the Vienna of Haydn’s day string quartets were played either in private or at most in the salons of the aristocracy. It was in the light of Salomon’s concerts at the Hanover Square Rooms that Haydn composed a further series of quartets in preparation for his return to London in 1794. The enriched sonority and increased brilliance of these new works, Opp 71 and 74, and above all their inclusion of a form of introduction to the opening Allegro functioning as a curtain-raiser, show that they must have been intended for public performance from the outset. In the first and last works of the Op 71 triptych, and in the C major Quartet Op 74 No 1, that introduction consists simply of a chord, or series of chords, acting as a call to attention. The two chords that herald the last of those works form nothing more than an emphatic cadence. Although the cadence is clearly an introductory gesture (it is not heard again when the first stage of the piece is repeated), the rising half-tone step formed by its upper notes is absorbed into the chromatic main subject of the Allegro itself.

Although Haydn clearly composed his new quartets with Salomon in mind, the published editions bore a dedication to Count Anton Georg Apponyi. (The first three quartets were issued more or less simultaneously in London and Vienna in October 1795, by Corri & Dussek as Op 72, and by Artaria & Co as Op 73; and the remainder followed some six months later. The division of the six works into two halves, each with its own opus number, was by no means unusual: by offering two separate sets of parts for sale, publishers could clearly hope to double their income.) Apponyi was a cultured music lover, and an accomplished violinist. Mozart was present when, on Christmas Eve 1784, he was accepted into the Masonic lodge Zur wahren Eintracht, and the following year the Count sponsored Haydn’s entrance into the Freemasons’ circle. According to the early Beethoven biography by Franz Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries, Count Apponyi approached Beethoven during a soirée given at Prince Lichnowsky’s palace in 1795, and invited him to write a string quartet. The commission was never carried out, though Beethoven did dedicate his first String Trio Op 3, as well as the String Quintet Op 4 (a substantially revised transcription of an earlier wind octet), to Apponyi.

Perhaps the publishers’ division of Haydn’s six quartets into two halves was after all not quite as arbitrary as might appear. The last three works stand apart from their predecessors through their use of a type of heightened expression that was entirely new to the realm of Haydn’s string quartets. His late-found interest in exploiting key-relationships that were more remote than those traditionally in use is heralded by his fine A flat major Piano Trio of 1790, which has its slow movement in E major. From 1793 onwards, Haydn showed an increasing fascination with juxtapositions of this kind, and his procedure was to have a long-lasting influence on Beethoven. The E flat major Symphony No 99, Haydn’s first work of its kind to include the warm sound of clarinets, places its slow movement not in B flat major, as would have been the norm, but in a G major whose brighter quality seems to belong to a different world altogether. Moreover, the minuet, back in the symphony’s home key of E flat, is followed by a trio in a radiant C major, so that once again the change of key comes as a breath of fresh air.

The first two quartets of the Op 74 triptych, composed around the same time as the Symphony No 99, also have the trio of their minuet movement in a third-related key. In Op 74 No 1, the entrance of the trio in a luminous and lyrical A major following the C major of the assertive minuet itself forms the expressive high-point of the work as a whole—a moment of melting beauty. As became his practice when setting the trio in a distant key, Haydn adds a coda that functions as a seamless join to the reprise of the minuet. In this case, however, the pianissimo coda conspicuously fails to modulate back into the minuet’s key. Instead, it remains poised on the threshold of A minor, before eventually coming to rest on a sustained single note of E. Since this is also the first note of the minuet’s theme, the da capo can begin without further ado, though the link serves only to heighten the gulf between the movement’s two sections.

In order, perhaps, to lay greater emphasis on the trio’s expressive coup, Haydn casts the quartet’s second movement not as one of his deeply felt Adagios, but as an Andantino grazioso of almost Rossinian lightness and transparency. Despite its air of insouciance, its second half contains some startling switches of key—not least, an excursion into a very remote C sharp minor near the close, after which the music is abruptly deposited back into the home key as though nothing untoward had occurred.

The finale is a piece of almost orchestral weight, particularly in the closing bars of each of its halves, which unfold above a single insistent pedal-note. In the latter half of the passage in question, the two lower instruments provide a richly scored drone bass, with the cello playing on ‘open’ strings, while the violins stomp away in octaves—the sort of moment that would have brought the house down at Salomon’s concerts. The movement begins with a play on contrasting sonorities. The main subject itself is given out as if it were to be a rondo theme, with a quasi-repeat of its initial dozen bars in which its articulation is radically changed, from largely smooth phrases to a delicate staccato assai. In the recapitulation (which enters to fine effect at the apex of a phrase, so that development and recapitulation overlap) the staccato version of the theme is reserved for a much later stage, after Haydn has characteristically indulged in further development.

While the first four quartets of Opp 71 and 74 have an introduction whose function is clearly defined, in the last two works of the series the opening bars assume a more ambiguous role: not only are they in the main tempo of the movement, but they are also thematic. In other words, there is no reason for the listener to assume that what he hears at the outset is anything other than the Allegro’s main subject, and it is above all the failure of the initial bars to return at a later stage that contradicts this initial impression. In the F major Quartet Op 74 No 2 the fanfare-like opening, given out in octaves by all four players, comes to a half close, after which there is a prolonged pause. It is followed by a first subject based on a similar melodic outline which does exactly the same, so that if the introduction sounds like a main theme, the main theme itself appears in retrospect like an introduction—a deliberate ambiguity that is renewed later in the piece, when the last half of the fanfare-like opening is quoted in the bars leading to the recapitulation.

This is a movement that finds Haydn at his most exuberant, and nowhere more so than in the closing moments of its first stage, which erupt into a chain of trills played by the full quartet in octaves. The trills are followed by two mysterious, long-sustained notes—D flat and E natural—forming a transition back to the start of the exposition for the repeat. When the same moment is reached again, Haydn provides a pair of second-time bars in which the first of the notes is transformed into C sharp. Since the listener cannot tell the difference between D flat and C sharp, the second-time bars are for the players’ eyes only; but the change in notation enables the music to take an entirely unexpected harmonic direction, and to plunge into the key of A major.

The two middle movements are much more straightforward. The first of them is a set of variations on a graceful theme. In the first variation the melodic line passes to the cello, while the succeeding variation, in the minor, provides one of Haydn’s great second-violin solos. The second violin also has the melody in the trio of the minuet movement, while above it the first violin weaves a smooth running accompaniment. The trio finds Haydn once more basking in the warmth of a third-related key—in this case D flat major—again necessitating a coda to form a modulatory link to the reprise of the minuet.

If the finale of Op 74 No 1 had a theme with more than a hint of a rondo character to it, this one presents a fully fledged rondo theme in two parts, each repeated—and this despite the fact that the piece turns out once again to be in sonata form. The structural deception is of a kind that had been used on occasion by Mozart (the finale of the great G minor Symphony No 40 is a familiar example). Haydn had previously exploited the idea in the finale of his F minor String Quartet Op 55 No 2, and he did so again in the last movement of the ‘Surprise’ Symphony No 94, written at more or less the same time as the Op 74 quartets. The finale of Op 74 No 2 boasts an exotic second subject, in the shape of a haunting Balkan-sounding idea that fluctuates continually between minor and major. It makes a return both during the course of the central development section and in the recapitulation. There is also a substantial coda in which the first violin takes off into flights of fantasy, playing rapid arpeggios across the strings in the manner of some wild cadenza.

The most famous among Haydn’s six quartets of 1793 is the last, in G minor, whose ‘bouncing’ finale theme has given rise to its nickname of the ‘Rider’. This time, the quartet’s opening bars are even more deeply integrated with the main body of the movement than had been the case in Op 74 No 2, despite the fact that Haydn is careful to stress their introductory character by following them with a silence of nearly three bars. Not only is the opening heard again when the exposition is repeated, which was not the case in Op 74 No 2, but its material, with its characteristic acciaccaturas (‘crushed’ notes played almost simultaneously with the adjacent main note) forms the springboard for the first half of the central development section. To add to the ambiguity of Haydn’s initial gesture, the movement’s main theme consists essentially of an accelerated version of the quasi-introduction’s melodic shape, with the cello’s contribution significantly consisting of nothing more than a repetition of the notes D and E flat. The climax of the movement—the bars immediately preceding the recapitulation—is formed by a fortissimo hammering out of the same two notes.

The slow movement is in a distant and ethereal E major, though Haydn has softened the blow by ending the first movement in G major. The great trouvaille of this Largo assai is the sudden explosion in its eighth bar on a wholly unexpected chord. In the reprise Haydn manages to cap this moment by filling in the chord with a rapid violin arpeggio; and the theme’s second half is similarly intensified by means of a ‘shuddering’ effect on all four instruments.

Just as the first movement had ended in the major, so Haydn places his minuet in G major, reserving the minor mode for the trio—a reversal of their expected roles. The finale is to end in the major, too, though the continual syncopation of its coda does little to allay the tension of this violent piece. Nor can its renewed emphasis on the notes D and E flat be coincidental—particularly when, as in the first movement, they are hurled forth in a fortissimo outburst at the climax of the development section.

Misha Donat © 2011

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