Despite the obvious similarities, the Moderato first movements of the underrated Op 17 set are on the whole less showy, and more attractive melodically, than those of Op 9. True to its radiant key of E major, No 1, fertilized by its vernal opening theme, is tender rather than brilliant in style, with more varied textures than in any of the Op 9 first movements. Midway through the movement Haydn fleetingly deceives us into thinking the recapitulation has begun, before developing the theme’s second ‘limb’ in beautiful sequences (with a moment of glory for the cellist) that lead to the recapitulation proper. The minuet, alternating chunky imitative writing and passages where the first violin hovers above shifting harmonies, is one of Haydn’s most powerfully developed to date. Its mysterious trio, in E minor, looks back to the Baroque in its gliding polyphonic textures, presented in free ‘retrograde’ inversion in the closing bars: a half-echo, perhaps, as Rosemary Hughes suggests in her BBC Music Guide
to the Haydn quartets, of a motet that Haydn had sung as a choirboy at St Stephen’s in Vienna. The Adagio, likewise in E minor, is a siciliano with dreamy suspensions, while the finale mingles quirky exuberance (its main theme consists of five-bar phrases plus a bar’s rest) and—in the B minor ‘second subject’—a touch of Balkan folk melancholy. Like the finales of Nos 3, 5 and 6, the movement ends in whisper.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2009