Is there a greater musical treat than sitting down to listen to a new set of Haydn quartets (well, apart from actually playing them)? The London Haydn Quartet’s period-instrument cycle has reached Opp 54 and 55, and with them, some of the richest and most fantastic of the many treasures that await those who venture off the beaten path of Haydn’s nicknamed and late works.
The London Haydn Quartet engage both head and heart from the very first bar. Take, for example, their sharply characterised opening flourish in Op 54 No 2. It’s part of a larger strategy. Knowing that the gypsy Adagio is something special, they play the opening chorale with a big, throaty vibrato—while violinist Catherine Manson wrings aching portamentos out of her swirling phrases. Yet it’s all, somehow, kept within a logical rhythmic framework—making Haydn’s slow finale feel like the culmination of a single imaginative vision.
Once again, the LHQ find all this spirit while remaining faithful to the letter of the score (they play from a 1789 edition), and with all repeats observed you get plenty of Haydn for your money. In Hyperion’s bright recorded sound the group’s transparent, mostly vibrato-free tone may initially feel chilly; but bear with it. It pays dividends in Op 54 No 3, where Haydn builds his textures around the middle voices: Manson seems to glint and glitter over the top. And again, in the first movement of Op 55 No 2, where the group applies just the right amount of sugar to Haydn’s F minor pill.
Not that these players are unduly fixated on form. There are any number of wayside delights, from the LHQ’s deadpan final pay-off in Op 54 No 1 to their spacious phrasing in Op 55 No 3’s Adagio. In short, these performances offer more with each listening. Booklet-notes by Richard Wigmore complete a very handsome package.