No 2 in C major is a favourite of cellists, who have glorious solo opportunities right from the opening, where the cello sings the theme in a three-part quasi-contrapuntal texture, with viola providing the bass. Haydn then reassigns the cello tune to the hitherto silent first violin. Of all the Op 20 works, this is the one that most ostentatiously proclaims the composer’s delight in his new-found democratic freedom of texture. Many of the sonorities in the first movement have a sensuous richness, enhanced by the gorgeous harmonic ‘purple patch’ (a deflection from G major, via G minor, to E flat) near the end of the exposition. The C minor Adagio, labelled Capriccio, is the consummation of the Baroque-flavoured operatic scenas found in two earlier Haydn quartets, Op 9 No 2 and Op 17 No 5. After a recitative, with cello and first violin in turn pleading with an implacable ‘orchestra’, the first violin spins a heart-easing E flat cantabile. The unquiet mood of the opening returns, with agitated triplet figuration, tentatively resolved by the gliding, syncopated minuet, an ethereal musette written pointedly against the rhythm of the courtly dance. In the trio, Haydn reverts to a dark C minor. The cello’s doleful descending sequence, set against suspensions for the upper voices, sounds like a distant, distorted echo of the opening of the Adagio. Only the return of the minuet-musette fully resolves the accumulated C minor tensions of the Adagio and the trio.
The final fugue, on four subjects and in a jig-like 6/8 metre, is the most contrapuntally virtuosic in Op 20. More than anywhere else in the set, Haydn here designs the finale as the work’s intellectual climax. Yet, as in No 6, he displays his learning with a light, scherzando touch, using fugue as an opportunity for witty banter, and delightedly exploiting the principal subject’s octave leap. After pages of unbroken sotto voce, the closing section erupts in an assertive forte that transforms the close fugal texture into free imitation, typical of Haydn’s ‘normal’ mature quartet style. Haydn punningly encapsulated the mercurial spirit of this finale when he wrote at the end of the score: ‘Laus omnip: Deo / Sic fugit amicus amicum’ (‘Praise to Almighty God / Thus one friend escapes another’).
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2011