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.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2009