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Hyperion Records

CDA67955 - Haydn: String Quartets Op 33
View of St Dunstan's in Fleet Street by Samuel Scott (c1702-1772)
Private Collection / Photo © Rafael Valls Gallery, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: June 2012
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: June 2013
Total duration: 133 minutes 19 seconds


'The lovely plangency of gut strings … the many examples of Haydn's wit are laid out with an audible twinkle in the eye. The musicians know how to have gentle fun together—and they seem happy to welcome interested listeners in to share it with them' (Gramophone)

'As in their previous releases, these four players led by Catherine Manson deliver an amazing precision of intonation and articulation' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Lucky Haydn, lucky Haydn lovers … great clarity to textures and there are many exquisitely shaded ends to phrases among the innumerable brilliant moments' (Early Music Review)

'The LHQ are gradually working their way through the mature Haydn quartets, and proving ideal companions in this eventful music … they revel in Haydn's ever-inventive scherzos and zany prestos, with dazzling playing from their leader, Catherine Manson, in the 'Joke' and 'Bird' quartets. Available in a two-for-one deal, this delectable set is a bargain, too' (The Sunday Times)

'These refined performances profile the music’s conversational sophistication and its sheer fluency, underscoring Haydn's gift for civility and wit' (Financial Times)

String Quartets Op 33
performed from the Schmitt edition published in Amsterdam in 1782
Allegro moderato  [8'03]
Scherzo: Allegro  [3'57]
Presto  [3'08]
Allegro moderato  [7'46]
Largo  [4'28]
Presto  [4'24]
Allegro moderato  [9'01]
Andante  [9'50]
Presto  [5'26]
Vivace assai  [7'09]
Scherzo: Allegro  [3'09]
Adagio  [4'38]
Andante  [5'24]
Vivace assai  [10'29]
Scherzo: Allegro  [3'12]
Allegretto  [5'28]
Allegro moderato  [10'08]
Adagio  [6'18]
Presto  [2'31]

A fourth volume of Haydn String Quartets finds period band The London Haydn Quartet on sparkling form. Their previous recordings have been praised for the ‘glowing sound of gut strings played perfectly in tune … the ensemble’s delicacy of nuance and sensitivity to harmonic colour, treating the listener as a privileged eavesdropper’ (Gramophone).

This competitively priced set contains the six Op 33 quartets, which Haydn wrote in Esterhazy after neglecting the genre for a decade, and which immediately became popular around Europe on publication.

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After his intensive quartet activity of 1769–1772, culminating in the monumental achievement of Op 20, Haydn wrote no more string quartets for nearly a decade. This was a period when his energies were overwhelmingly absorbed by the composition and production of operas—mainly comedies—for the Esterházy court. When Haydn did produce another set of quartets in 1781, he advertised manuscript copies to potential subscribers, who for the price of six ducats per work would have privileged use of the quartets for several months before they became available to the wider public: cultural one-upmanship for the patrons, at a time when the string quartet was rivalling the symphony in prestige, and a lucrative extra source of revenue for the composer.

In his three promotional letters of December 1781 that survive, including one to the celebrated Zurich theologian and philosopher Johann Caspar Lavater, Haydn famously proclaimed that the quartets were written ‘in a completely new and special way, for I haven’t composed any for ten years’. The Viennese publisher Artaria threatened to spoil things by announcing later in December that the quartets would be issued within four weeks. Fearing the indignation of his subscribers, Haydn got Artaria to delay publication until April 1782, when the quartets appeared as Op 33 in an order different from the traditional numbering, beginning with the G major (No 5) and ending with the B flat major (No 4). Meanwhile, Haydn had also sold the quartets to the firms of Schmitt, in Amsterdam, and Hummel, who had offices in Amsterdam and Berlin. By this time he had become a canny business operator; and here, as elsewhere, it is amusing to read him wriggling out of an embarrassing situation and putting a favourable gloss on his double-dealing. The familiar ordering, with the B minor quartet placed first, originates from the edition published by Sieber in Paris early in 1783. We know that at least one of the Op 33 quartets was performed on Christmas Day 1781 in the Viennese apartment of the visiting Russian Grand Duke Paul, later Tsar Paul I. Haydn subsequently dedicated the set to the Grand Duke, hence the nickname ‘Russian’.

Haydn’s ‘new and special way’ has often been dismissed as a sales gimmick. But there are new features in Op 33, as one would expect given the decade that had elapsed since his previous quartets. Compared with Op 20, the Op 33 quartets are altogether lighter and more ‘popular’ in tone (Haydn by now had his eye on the international market), less self-consciously ‘learned’ (no fugues!), with a livelier, more fluid sense of rhythm that Haydn had honed in his comic operas. Ideas seem to grow effortlessly and inevitably out of each other, in a spirit we might describe as ‘monothematic plurality’. Crucial, too, is the ease with which the instruments change roles in Op 33, moving almost imperceptibly between background and foreground, theme and accompaniment. Even more than in Op 20, the quartets illustrate Goethe’s famous description of the string quartet as ‘a conversation between four intelligent people’. The Op 33 quartets circulated rapidly throughout Europe, exactly as Haydn planned; and with their sophisticated conversational textures they were a prime influence on the six quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn in 1785.

A comedic spirit rules in some of the scherzos, as Haydn labelled the minuets of the Op 33 quartets—hence the nickname ‘Gli Scherzi’ found in some early editions—and in the finales, all of which except No 1 (in sonata form) adopt the popular forms of rondo or variations. Yet playful banter and knockabout humour are far from the whole picture. In No 1 in B minor the comedy is cerebral, often unsettling. At the beginning the two violins delicately suggest D major, before the second violin’s A sharp at the end of bar two points towards B minor. While the upper three instruments go with this, the cello seems oblivious, playing a fragment of the opening phrase as if still in D major, its A naturals clashing pungently with the viola’s A sharps. Only with the appearance of a vigorous new march theme in bar eleven is B minor unambiguously established. After a pause, the ‘second subject’ turns out to be an expanded version of the quizzical opening, now in an unequivocal D major: Haydn belatedly providing the stability the ear had craved at the opening. As so often in late Haydn, the recapitulation develops and reinterprets as much as it recapitulates. To play the ‘what key are we in?’ joke again would have been tautologous. Haydn duly reharmonizes the tentative main theme in B minor, for the only time in the movement, then draws unsuspected drama from an apparently insignificant two-note figure before building to a truculent contrapuntal climax on the march theme.

As in Op 33 Nos 2, 3 and 4, Haydn deemed that a broadly paced opening movement was better followed by a minuet/scherzo rather than an even slower movement. (The 1782 Amsterdam edition published by Joseph Schmitt, referenced for this recording, also places the scherzos of Nos 5 and 6 second, before their slow movements.) Marked Allegro di molto, the Scherzo of No 1 is the fastest and most astringent of the set, leaving its distant aristocratic minuet model gasping. Its main section, with its stinging imitations, manic repeated notes from the first violin (determined to pursue its own course) and explosive dynamic contrasts, surely impressed the young Beethoven. The B major trio brings harmonic balm with suave duetting between the upper and lower pairs of instruments.

Whereas most of the slow movements in Op 33 are reveries, the D major Andante of No 1 retains something of the scherzando flavour of the second movement. The main motor of the musical action is the strutting arpeggio theme announced by the first violin, with its faintly comical air of self-importance. Then, in an instance of role reversal that is one of the hallmarks of Op 33, the cello takes over the theme before the first violin firmly but gracefully reasserts its pre-eminence. There is a chromatically piquant second theme, played in bare octaves by viola and cello (Mozart would never have permitted himself this kind of textural rawness) and repeated by the two violins. This leads to a melting cadence over a cello pedal that Mendelssohn may have remembered in the minuet of his ‘Italian’ Symphony. The whole movement exudes a typically Haydnesque mix of lyrical grace and edgy eccentricity.

Edginess is also a keynote of the finale, which contrasts a darkly agitated main theme on the violin’s deep G string with fevered, gypsy-style figuration. Both elements are worked in tense imitation in the development. Most late Haydn finales that begin in the minor resolve cheerfully into the major. Here, though, the recapitulation cleaves to B minor right through to a laconic coda that condenses and distorts the main theme.

The comic disintegration of the theme in the bubbly tarantella finale of No 2 in E flat major, repeatedly fooling the listener as to whether the piece has ended or not, followed by a last appearance, pianissimo, of the opening phrase, has spawned the quartet’s English nickname ‘The Joke’. The story goes that Haydn wrote the ending in order to win a bet that ‘the ladies will always begin talking’ before the music stops. His outrageous deception can still throw listeners of both sexes. (Clara Schumann wrote of how she laughed aloud after a performance by the Joachim Quartet.)

The relaxed first movement encapsulates Op 33’s prevailing spirit of easy, conversational give-and-take, with virtually everything growing from its genial opening phrase: this is a locus classicus of Haydn’s famed monothematicism, where a single idea suffices for a varied and inventive movement. At the start of the development the first bar of the friendly theme is woven in a tight polyphonic web, with that mingled sophistication and airy lightness so characteristic of Op 33.

The Scherzo is an Austrian peasant dance known as a Schuhplattler, with heavy repeated chords to accompany the stamping of feet. Lusty bucolic energy goes hand in hand with Haydnesque wit: at the opening, for instance, the expected four-plus-four-bar phrasing is slyly disrupted by a chromatically tinged two-bar phrase for the violins. Mozart seems to have taken this movement as the model for the minuet in his own E flat major Quartet, K428. In the trio the first violin gives a graphic imitation of an Austrian village fiddler, complete with deliciously vulgar slides (glissandi) between notes that were eschewed by squeamish nineteenth-century editors.

Amid all this frivolity, the Largo e sostenuto third movement introduces a note of gentle gravity. It opens, unprecedentedly in Haydn’s quartets, with a solemn duet for viola and cello before the two violins repeat the melody, intermittently cushioned by drowsy cello murmurs. On each reappearance of this beautiful melody, separated by rhetorical outbursts, Haydn enriches the texture: first in a trio, with the melody in the second violin, then finally in a full quartet sonority, with the viola creating a wonderfully eloquent counterpoint from the murmuring semiquavers.

The glorious first movement of No 3 in C major (‘The Bird’) has one of the most magical openings in all Haydn. Against soft pulsations from second violin and viola, the first violin steals in with a soft sustained high G, grows increasingly animated (with a hint of birdsong) and then plunges down two octaves against an ardent rising cello line. C major seems firmly established. But Haydn then questions this certainty by repeating the same process in D minor before gliding back to the home key. The violin’s chirping acciaccaturas in bar three come to permeate much of the texture, not least in the second subject, where the motivic fragments finally coalesce into a more-or-less rounded tune. At the heart of the development these bird-calls suddenly become mysterious in a sequence of pianissimo clashing suspensions—one of the most haunting moments in all these quartets. Haydn wittily exploits the movement’s unstable opening in an oblique, off-key ‘recapitulation’, stealing in before we quite realize it, and in the reharmonization of the theme (with a feint towards G major) in the very last bars.

Contradicting its title of Scherzo—and the usually bright, ‘open’ key of C major—the tenderly veiled second movement transmutes a dance into a hymn or prayer, with the four instruments playing sotto voce on their lowest strings. With comical incongruity, the trio resumes the first movement’s avian associations with a twittering duet for the two violins on their high A and E strings. The serene, warmly textured Adagio, in condensed sonata form (with a brief transition instead of a central development), surely left its mark on the slow movement of Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet, K465, in the same key. Instead of literally repeating the first section, Haydn varies it with floridly expressive figuration for the first violin: a touchstone for the player’s ‘taste’ and imagination.

The rondo finale is Haydn at his most antic. Its manic refrain, oscillating obsessively between G and E, derives from a Slavonic folk dance. After the tune has tumbled down from first violin to cello, Haydn swerves into an impassioned episode in Hungarian gypsy style. But the mood is quickly punctured by the irrepressible, hyperactive folk tune. The coda is pure slapstick, with a fragment of the theme bandied about between upper and lower instruments before the music seems to disappear into thin air.

Of all the Op 33 quartets, No 4 in B flat major is probably the least played, perhaps because the puckish first movement, beginning as if in the middle of a phrase, is less varied in texture than the other opening movements of Op 33. The development consists largely of modulating sequences for the first violin above repetitions of a nagging three-note figure derived from the end of the main theme. But the music is full of Haydnesque wit and élan, not least when the moment of recapitulation again takes the listener unawares. The Scherzo—for once a minuet in all but name—is the most regular and courtly of the dance movements in Op 33. Its enigmatic B flat minor trio hints at the melody of the main section in shadowy outline.

The jewel of the quartet is the rapt E flat major Largo, with its soaring violin cantilena and gorgeous remote modulations. More than any other slow movement in Op 33, the music looks ahead fifteen years to the profound meditations in Haydn’s Op 76 quartets. Sentiment is gleefully banished in the finale, a whirlwind rondo that varies its catchy contredanse theme on each return. In the second episode, in G minor, Haydn mines his favourite Hungarian gypsy vein, as he had done in the ‘Bird’. Again the movement disintegrates into slapstick. After a distended, spidery version of the theme and a failed attempt to ‘normalize’ it, Haydn cuts his losses and exits with an absurd simplification of the tune, played pizzicato. Back in the 1760s, po-faced critics from Berlin and Hamburg had taken Haydn to task for ‘debasing the art with comic fooling’. Two decades later he was still at it.

Both in the manuscript copies preserved in Melk Abbey and in the Artaria edition of Op 33 (also referenced by the London Haydn Quartet in making this recording), No 5 in G major appears first. From this we can infer it was probably the earliest of the set to be composed. The Vivace assai—much pacier than the corresponding movements of Nos 1–4—begins pianissimo with a galant cadence: a musical equivalent of a bow or curtsey whose rhythm also prompted the nineteenth-century English nickname ‘How do you do?’. It initiates a movement of almost symphonic boldness and drive, with quasi-orchestral textures created by double stopping and pounding repeated bass notes. Whereas all the other first movements in Op 33 grow from their opening themes, here Haydn accommodates a clear-cut second subject of Mozartian allure, unfolding at leisure over a cello pedal. This moment of lyric repose is mirrored at the centre of the contrapuntally vigorous development, where the second theme reappears in E minor before deflecting to new keys. True to form, Haydn continues to spring surprises throughout the recapitulation—a transformation rather than restatement of earlier events—and coda, which begins with a dramatic plunge from G to E flat major and ends teasingly with the ‘How do you do?’ cadence.

Haydn seems to stick his tongue out in the Scherzo (placed second here, following the early Schmitt edition), constantly fooling the listener with displaced accents, and then inserting a malicious pause just when we seem to have found our feet. In extreme contrast, the trio is almost exaggeratedly demure. The slow movement is a soulful, increasingly ornate G minor Largo e cantabile in which the first violin impersonates a tragic operatic heroine. Commentators from Donald Tovey onwards have suggested the influence of Gluck here. More specifically, the opening bars seem like a minor-keyed echo of Orpheus’s Elysian aria ‘Che puro ciel!’ in Orfeo ed Euridice, which Haydn had performed at Eszterháza in 1776. At the very end Haydn deflates the tragic mood with a single pizzicato twang. Simplicity is also the keynote of the finale, a set of three variations on a lilting siciliano tune. While the variations are essentially decorative, the second has a luminous grace, with that easy fluidity of texture characteristic of Op 33. Mozart took up Haydn’s idea of a variation finale in siciliano rhythm and gave it a far more troubled cast in his D minor Quartet, K421.

The opening Vivace assai of No 6 in D major also evidently appealed to Mozart, who echoed its mingled alfresco exuberance and quicksilver motivic development in his ‘Hunt’ Quartet, K458. This is the most puckishly inventive of all Haydn’s hunting movements, truly democratic in texture (in contrast to the first-violin-dominated No 4), with a sense of delighted colloquy as the players second or undercut each other’s ideas. Haydn blurs the division between development and recapitulation via a breathtaking excursion into remote keys: not for the only time in these quartets, wit is transfigured to poetry.

Subversive comedy continues in the Scherzo, with its crazy offbeat accents and imitative entries: in a game of musical chairs, the viola ends up stranded with the opening motif. The trio restores rhythmic decorum, beginning as a lolloping cello solo before morphing into a canonic duet for first violin and viola. As in Op 33 No 5, the slow movement is usually placed second, but here, following Schmitt’s Amsterdam edition, comes third. Again it is in the tonic minor key, with something of a Baroque flavour. But the texture is more varied and complex than in No 5. Above the opening theme, gravely intoned by second violin and viola, the first violin’s sustained high A recreates the vocal technique of messa di voce (literally ‘placing the voice’), involving a perfectly controlled gradual swelling and ebbing of the tone, and indispensable to any eighteenth-century singer’s armoury.

As in No 5, Haydn offsets a fast first movement with a relaxed variation finale. This is the earliest example in his quartets of his favourite ‘double variation’ form, with alternating sections of major and minor. The D minor theme, initiated by the cello, is a classic instance of the free, informal counterpoint that is one of the glories of Op 33.

Richard Wigmore © 2013

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