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Hyperion Records

CDA67877 - Haydn: String Quartets Op 20
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: September 2010
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Simon Kiln
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: September 2011
DISCID: B812B90C A212D70C
Total duration: 159 minutes 41 seconds


'An ensemble unique in collective insight, in tempo-management, articulation of melodic design and assessment of harmonic weight … provocative interpretations of enthralling magnitude' (Gramophone)

'The commitment of this string quartet to one composer pays off. Their period tone suits Haydn's melodious down-to-earth writing and they capture the urbane wit and complex intelligence of Vienna's first superstar' (Classic FM)

'The players of the London Haydn Quartet, formed in 2001, refer modestly in their booklet notes to gut strings and Classical bows, saying relatively little about performing practice, but in this respect they are underselling themselves. These performances are not only emotive and truly stirring, but also hint at a good understanding of what we know of performance at the time of the 1801 Artaria edition they have chosen, with a clean yest warm sound, thoughtful stressing of dissonances, some welcome use of portamento and an intelligent and sparing use of vibrato' (The Strad)

'Their lean tone keeps everything impeccably clear, they avoid any sense of casualness, and they make the music sound austerely fresh' (The Irish Times)

String Quartets Op 20
performed from the Artaria edition published in Vienna in 1801
Allegro moderato  [11'47]
Presto  [3'39]
Moderato  [11'35]
Poco adagio  [7'36]
Allegro molto  [5'19]
Allegro di molto  [10'55]
Allegro moderato  [13'51]
Menuetto  [5'48]
Adagio  [6'15]
Adagio cantabile  [6'22]

Haydn’s remarkable Opus 20 quartets are rightfully regarded as landmarks in the history of the string quartet. Throughout the six contrasting quartets the composer employs compositional techniques that were to shape and define the genre. We witness a deviation in style from the lightness and wit of his previous quartets to a mood of emotional intensity and darker musical imagery.

The six Opus 20 works are all individually exquisite masterpieces and demonstrate a composer at the height of creative maturity. They display an astonishing consistency of excellence and a huge variety of form and style, contrasting dynamics and relentless energy. Increasingly polyphonic textures are infused with a sense of drama, and the cello is often freed from its basso continuo roots to a position of prominence.

The London Haydn Quartet is the ideal advocate for these works and gives elegant, radiant and exhilaratingly assured performances.

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While Haydn has long been discredited as ‘the father of the symphony’, his status as the father of the string quartet remains unchallenged. There had been occasional divertimentos for two violins, viola and cello before Haydn. But no earlier composer showed any interest in exploring the potential of the quartet as a flexible, conversational medium. And it fell to Haydn to raise the string quartet from its modest origins in the alfresco serenade to a vehicle for the most sophisticated musical discourse, and a touchstone for a composer’s ‘taste’ and craftsmanship.

After the divertimento-like quartets of the 1750s published as Opp 1 and 2 came a gap of over a decade. These were Haydn’s early years at the Esterházy court, dominated by the production of symphonies and, from 1765, compositions for the baryton, a kind of bass viol with a harp extension that had become a curious obsession of the Prince Nicolaus Esterházy. When Haydn returned to the quartet genre in 1769 he did so with a vengeance, producing over the next few years the three sets of six, Op 9, Op 17 and Op 20. With their weighty four-movement structures and mastery of rhetoric and thematic development, these works are a world away from the breezy quartets of Opp 1 and 2. Yet fine as Op 9 and Op 17 are, the quartets of Op 20 of 1772—an annus mirabilis which also produced three magnificent symphonies, Nos 45–47—explore the technical and expressive potential of the medium with a new spirit of adventure. As Donald Tovey famously put it in an article in Cobbett’s Cyclopaedia of Chamber Music (1929): ‘There is perhaps no single or sextuple opus in the history of instrumental music which has achieved so much or achieved it so quietly.’

By 1772 Haydn, already an acknolwedged master of the eccentric, the comic and the surprising, had become the supreme master of long-range sonata strategy. In Op 20, even more than in the finest of Op 9 and Op 17, the form of each movement is dictated by the material, with the recapitulations both resolving and re-interpreting, often radically, earlier events. Op 20 left a profound impression on Mozart, and on Beethoven, who copied out No 1 and parts of the other quartets before embarking on his Op 18 set. Brahms owned the autograph manuscripts until he bequeathed them to the Viennese Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. When Op 20 was published by the firm of Hummel in 1779 (five years after the earliest edition issued by La Chevardière in Paris), the title page carried an emblem of a midday sun—hence the sobriquet ‘Sun’ Quartets. Neither edition was authorized by the composer. Although Op 20 contributed hugely to Haydn’s rapidly growing international fame, in an age before copyright laws it was the publishers who profited.

Whereas the first violin had ruled over long stretches of Opp 9 and 17, in Op 20 Haydn conceives the discourse as a free exchange of ideas, with each player accorded a vital, distinct identity. Much of the writing in Op 20 suggests ‘a conversation between four intelligent people’, as Goethe pithily characterized the string quartet—a reminder that the art of civilized conversation, where profound ideas could be expounded with a light, witty touch, was avidly cultivated in eighteenth-century salons. The finale of No 3, for instance, divides its theme in all sorts of ways: first between the two violins, who later proceed to swap roles, then between cello and first violin, and finally as a dialogue between the lower and upper pairs of instruments. These equal-opportunity tendencies culminate in the fugues that crown Nos 2, 5 and 6. During the 1760s composers such as Florian Gassmann, Carlo d’Ordoñez and Franz Xaver Richter had written fugues in their quartets, a sign that the string quartet was increasingly acknowledged as a ‘learned’ genre. But whereas their fugues are exercises in a venerable ecclesiastical style, Haydn’s, especially those in Nos 2 and 6, have a spontaneous freshness and urgency. The contrapuntal mastery he had honed in his early symphonies and his sacred music of the late 1760s is coloured here by the drama and wit of his sonata style.

No less striking is Op 20’s vast range of expression, from the sorrowful No 5 in F minor, through the gypsy pungency and zany antics of No 4’s minuet and finale, to the rapt, remote beauty of No 1’s Affettuoso e sostenuto. Far more than in Opp 9 and 17, each work has a sharply individual profile. Indeed, no set of Haydn quartets is as varied or eccentrically inspired as Op 20 until Op 76 a quarter of a century later. It is as if the forty-year-old composer, at the summit of his powers, conceived the set as a showcase for his technical and expressive virtuosity. The six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn in 1785 leave a similar impression.

Reflecting the preoccupation with the minor mode in Haydn’s so-called Sturm und Drang symphonies of the years around 1770, the Op 20 set, uniquely, contains two minor-keyed quartets. They could hardly be more strongly contrasted. The outer movements of No 3 in G minor are astringent, nervy, sometimes bizarrely elliptical. In the opening Allegro con spirito, whose eccentric main theme (in an eccentric texture, with viola doubling first violin at the octave) comprises a four-bar plus a three-bar phrase, Haydn veers abruptly between hectic desperation and recurrent buffo-like fragments whose effect is mocking, even sinister, rather than jolly. In the exposition and development a little wriggling unison figure, like a stage aside, adds a touch of grotesquerie. The music’s waywardness reaches its climax in the recapitulation, which drastically reworks the events of the exposition and expands a brief snatch of violin recitative into an almost hysterical cri de cœur.

The desolate minuet, its unease enhanced by the pervasive five-bar phrases, is relieved by its exquisite, lulling E flat major trio. Both minuet and trio fade away strangely on the brink of C minor, an effect that Haydn replicates in the unsettling pianissimo close of the finale. Though written against the background of sonata form, the Poco adagio, in G major, is essentially a fantasy on a single ardent melody. (A rare surviving sketch for Op 20 reveals that Haydn originally conceived the melody for cello rather than first violin.) Each of its reappearances is characterized by an evocative new sonority, typical of the composer’s heightened sensitivity to tone colour throughout the Op 20 quartets.

While the G minor is still relatively neglected, No 5 in F minor, greatly admired by Gluck when he visited Haydn in 1776, has long been a favourite. Like the C minor Piano Sonata written the previous year, the magnificent opening movement recreates the Empfindsamkeit (‘heightened sensitivity’) of C P E Bach in terms of Haydn’s more dynamic, ‘goal-oriented’ style. The sinuous, elegiac main theme is, characteristically, immediately varied, and then recast when it appears in the relative major, A flat. Unusually for Haydn at this period there is a distinct ‘second subject’, initiated by a confident octave leap and then petering out inconclusively. The central development, beginning with a sequential expansion of the main theme, varies rather than truly develops the material. Rigorous thematic argument is reserved for the coda, the most eventful and extended in any Haydn quartet to date. Here the composer wonderfully expands a moment of harmonic mystification in the exposition and then works a fragment of the second theme to an impassioned, even tragic, climax.

The powerful minuet contrasts a strenuous forte statement with a plaintive piano answer which Mozart perhaps remembered in the minuet of his G minor String Quintet. In the second half Haydn prolongs and intensifies the forte statement and enhances the poignancy of the piano reply with a surprise harmonic deflection. After this almost unrelieved emphasis on F minor, the F major trio brings harmonic balm, though with its irregular phrase lengths it is not quite so innocent as it may first seem. F major returns in the limpid Adagio, whose guileless siciliano theme is freely varied with quasi-improvisatory arabesques from the first violin. Of the three fugal finales in Op 20, No 5’s double fugue, based on a common tag used by Handel in Messiah (‘And with his stripes we are healed’) and Mozart in the Kyrie of the Requiem, is the most austerely Baroque in flavour—though a Baroque fugue in F minor would not have modulated as far afield as A flat minor. Haydn here displays every contrapuntal trick of the trade: inversion, stretto (i.e. with thematic entries piling in on top of each other) and, near the end, a climactic fortissimo canon between first violin and cello, all the more dramatic after so much tense sotto voce.

In her BBC Music Guide to the Haydn quartets, Rosemary Hughes memorably described No 1 in E flat major as springing from ‘that central core of tranquillity that lies at the heart of Haydn’s music’. The easy interplay in the opening Allegro moderato, with the instruments nonchalantly swapping roles, is a world away from the violin-dominated first movements in the Op 9 and Op 17 quartets. This movement, too, is a classic example of Haydn’s inspired thematic economy, with the whole varied narrative evolving from the opening phrases. Placed second, as in Nos 3 and 5, the minuet begins with two terse four-bar phrases, one jaunty, the other feline, but then expands with exhilarating freedom in its second part. The quizzical, faintly enigmatic trio, in A flat, unfolds in a three-part texture, with the viola only entering just before the harmonically disorienting lead-back (stressing F minor rather than preparing the home key of E flat) to the minuet.

The jewel of the quartet, some might even say of the entire Op 20 set, is the Affettuoso e sostenuto (‘Tender and sustained’), in the dusky key of A flat: music of self-communing inwardness that unfolds throughout in a hushed, rich, four-part chorale texture, with no discernible ‘theme’ and minimal articulation. There is something strangely elusive about this movement, with its weird interlocking and crossing of parts and quietly audacious dissonances. Mozart would remember it in the Andante, likewise in A flat, of his third ‘Haydn’ quartet, K428. The Presto finale is as economically fashioned as the first movement, drawing its quirky energy from its laconic opening theme (consisting of two three-bar phrases) and a series of syncopations that initiate an exciting sequence of modulations in the central development. Like Nos 3 and 4, the quartet ends in a whisper.

No 2 in C major is a favourite of cellists, who have glorious solo opportunities right from the opening, where the cello sings the theme in a three-part quasi-contrapuntal texture, with viola providing the bass. Haydn then reassigns the cello tune to the hitherto silent first violin. Of all the Op 20 works, this is the one that most ostentatiously proclaims the composer’s delight in his new-found democratic freedom of texture. Many of the sonorities in the first movement have a sensuous richness, enhanced by the gorgeous harmonic ‘purple patch’ (a deflection from G major, via G minor, to E flat) near the end of the exposition. The C minor Adagio, labelled Capriccio, is the consummation of the Baroque-flavoured operatic scenas found in two earlier Haydn quartets, Op 9 No 2 and Op 17 No 5. After a recitative, with cello and first violin in turn pleading with an implacable ‘orchestra’, the first violin spins a heart-easing E flat cantabile. The unquiet mood of the opening returns, with agitated triplet figuration, tentatively resolved by the gliding, syncopated minuet, an ethereal musette written pointedly against the rhythm of the courtly dance. In the trio, Haydn reverts to a dark C minor. The cello’s doleful descending sequence, set against suspensions for the upper voices, sounds like a distant, distorted echo of the opening of the Adagio. Only the return of the minuet-musette fully resolves the accumulated C minor tensions of the Adagio and the trio.

The final fugue, on four subjects and in a jig-like 6/8 metre, is the most contrapuntally virtuosic in Op 20. More than anywhere else in the set, Haydn here designs the finale as the work’s intellectual climax. Yet, as in No 6, he displays his learning with a light, scherzando touch, using fugue as an opportunity for witty banter, and delightedly exploiting the principal subject’s octave leap. After pages of unbroken sotto voce, the closing section erupts in an assertive forte that transforms the close fugal texture into free imitation, typical of Haydn’s ‘normal’ mature quartet style. Haydn punningly encapsulated the mercurial spirit of this finale when he wrote at the end of the score: ‘Laus omnip: Deo / Sic fugit amicus amicum’ (‘Praise to Almighty God / Thus one friend escapes another’).

No 4 in D major is the most obviously ‘tuneful’ of Op 20, looking ahead to later Haydn in its incorporation of popular-style melodies. The expansive yet sinewy opening Allegro di molto makes mysterious/dramatic capital of its initial ‘drum’ motif, always likely to pivot the music to an unexpected tonal area. With the instruments often paired in mellifluous thirds and sixths (as in the dialogues between upper and lower voices in the second group of themes), the textures sound more ‘Mozartian’ to us than usual in Haydn’s quartets. As in several of his symphonies from the 1770s, Haydn brings back the opening theme in the home key quite near the start of the development, a ploy that might fool the unwary (though hardly the connoisseurs in his select audience) into thinking that the recapitulation has actually arrived.

The poignant D minor Un poco adagio affettuoso is Haydn’s only variation movement cast entirely in the minor key (and there is no parallel in Mozart or Beethoven). The second half of the theme, with each instrument rising slowly by step, reaches an almost excruciating pitch of intensity. Of the three variations, the first is fashioned as a fretful dialogue between second violin and viola, the second exploits the cello over its whole compass, and the third dissolves the theme into triplets for the first violin. After a reprise of the original theme, shorn of its repeats, Haydn expands the scale in an astonishing, unprecedented fantasia-cum-coda that stresses the dissonant melodic shapes within the theme and, in the fragmentary final bars, pushes the music to the brink of incoherence.

Returning to a world of robust normality, the minuet, Allegretto alla zingarese (‘gypsy-style’), and Presto scherzando finale mine Haydn’s favourite Hungarian gypsy vein with irresistible wit and élan. In the former a riot of offbeat accents keep the listener guessing as to whether this is a minuet or a gavotte. In pointed contrast, the trio deals in perfectly regular four-bar phrases, with a jaunty cello solo against the simplest of accompaniments. The finale lives up to its scherzando billing in music of controlled waywardness and harmonic surprise, treating its impish opening motif in the free, informal contrapuntal textures that are among the chief delights of Haydn’s mature quartet style.

The final quartets of Haydn’s Op 9 and Op 17 sets both open with a buoyant, alfresco movement in 6/8 ‘hunting’ rhythm. In Op 20, No 6 in A major follows suit with an irrepressible movement that outdoes its predecessors in wit and harmonic sleight-of-hand, as when the ‘second subject’ deflects from E minor to D major before working round to the anticipated key of E major. At the end of the exposition and recapitulation Haydn again evokes musette drones, with the leader playing in double stopping. The composer marked the movement scherzando, as he might well have done the dancing final fugue on three subjects. The music’s comic verve—matched among fugues only by the rollicking finale of Verdi’s Falstaff—reaches its acme when Haydn gleefully turns the principal theme on its head: the technique is ‘learned’, the effect anything but.

The middle movements of No 6 are, by Haydn’s standards, relatively well behaved. Reverting to the style of the slow movements of Op 9 and Op 17, the E major Adagio cantabile is a soulful aria for first violin, expressively embellished when the first section is repeated, and enriched by dark glints of viola colour. With its gracious succession of four-bar phrases (with the opening phrase repeated to round off the movement—one of Haydn’s beginning-as-ending puns), the minuet is the only one in Op 20 that might, just, be danced. The beautiful, veiled trio is, like that in No 1, literally a trio, though here it is the second violin who is silent while the other three instruments play sotto voce on their lowest string.

Richard Wigmore © 2011

Other albums in this series
'Haydn: String Quartets Op 9' (CDA67611)
Haydn: String Quartets Op 9
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £10.50 CDA67611  2CDs for the price of 1  
'Haydn: String Quartets Op 17' (CDA67722)
Haydn: String Quartets Op 17
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £10.50 CDA67722  2CDs for the price of 1  
'Haydn: String Quartets Op 33' (CDA67955)
Haydn: String Quartets Op 33
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 96 kHz £12.00ALAC 24-bit 96 kHz £12.00 CDA67955  2CDs for the price of 1   Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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