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String Quartet in E flat major 'The Joke', Op 33 No 2
'Russian' Quartet No 2; 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 1: Allegro moderato, cantabile
Track 5 on CDA66681 [7'55] Archive Service
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro
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Track 6 on CDA66681 [3'20] Archive Service
Movement 3: Largo e sostenuto
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Movement 3: Largo sostenuto
Track 7 on CDA66681 [4'31] Archive Service
Movement 4: Finale: Presto
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Movement 4: Presto
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String Quartet in E flat major 'The Joke', Op 33 No 2
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.

from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2013

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Details for CDA66681 track 7
Largo sostenuto
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 7
    Release date: May 1993
    Archive Service
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