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String Quartet in B minor, Op 33 No 1
'Russian' Quartet No 1; the Schmitt Edition (Amsterdam, 1782) gives the movement tempo indications slightly differently to other editions

'Haydn: String Quartets Op 33' (CDA67955)
Haydn: String Quartets Op 33
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'Haydn: String Quartets Op. 33 Nos 1-3' (CDA66681)
Haydn: String Quartets Op. 33 Nos 1-3
Movement 1: Allegro moderato
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Movement 2: Scherzando: Allegro
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Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro di molto
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Movement 3: Andante
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Movement 4: Presto
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String Quartet in B minor, Op 33 No 1
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 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.

from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2013

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Details for CDA66681 track 3
Recording date
6 March 1992
Recording venue
Recording producer
Roy Mowatt
Recording engineer
Keith Warren
Hyperion usage
  1. Haydn: String Quartets Op. 33 Nos 1-3 (CDA66681)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: May 1993
    Archive Service
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