Roy Westbrook
MusicWeb International
January 2019

The London Haydn Quartet, a period-instrument group, progress sequentially through their ongoing Haydn string quartet cycle for Hyperion, beginning with the first ‘real’ quartets of Op 9. They have now reached the six very fine works of Op 64. They come from 1790, just before Haydn’s first very successful trip to London, where some of them were first performed. One particularly famous Haydn quartet in the set, No 5, is known as ‘The Lark’ after its soaring first subject on the first violin. Even if the other five are less celebrated among the general musical public, they are all well worth getting to know.

In some ways this is a good set on which to get to know Op 64, since the tempi are mostly broader than one often hears, and the players are generous with repeats. Thus the very first movement of No 1 in C major runs for well over 10 minutes, which is pretty rare in Haydn’s chamber music. Even allowing for the repeats, this implies a broad tempo. The Lindsay Quartet on ASV, so much admired for their Haydn, take 8:49 and it still feels like the marked Allegro moderato. With different repeat choices, the Amadeus (Deutsche Grammophon) take 6:36 and the Buchberger Quartet (Brilliant Classics) just 6:06. So for me it comes rather close to making the music outstay its welcome, the last thing one expects from Haydn. Similarly, the first movement of the second quartet, despite the Allegro spiritoso marking, sounds more reflective or questing than spirited. The opening of the aforementioned ‘Lark’ suffers rather from the same problem. Its 9:40 compares unfavourably to the Amadeus Quartet’s 5:45. The slow tempo keeps the music earthbound, in spite of the sweetness and precision of Catherine Manson’s playing of the first violin part. (In fact, the playing is very good from everyone throughout.)

It could be said that this is domestic music, aimed at (fairly skilled) amateur players, so this intimate approach represents an authentic recreation of what Haydn might have expected to hear. Players explore and share the music’s invention for their own pleasure rather than projecting to an audience. That may also explain why there is a frequent sense of a sustained mezzoforte dynamic level, with the marked contrasts of dynamic just audible, but underplayed. The first movement exposition of No 4 in G (the best performance overall here, I felt) has f, sf, p, f, sf, p, f, p on the first page of the Eulenberg score, suggesting more of a drama of light in shade of dynamics than we get here.

Against the view of these works as domestic in scale and mood, some of them were premiered at Salomon’s public concerts in London, then ahead of the continent in presenting such works in this way. But perhaps that context only suggests that their main use was to be for private performances. I should exaggerate these observations. The inner movements are all more than agreeable enough however, and the LHQ do present a much more lively and outgoing aspect of the music in the presto finales that close four of these quartets. The string playing and string sound is very fine, blended effectively, with no period instrument asperity and a rich presence for the cello. Overall I value this recording as offering a rather different take on the nature of the music than most others, and thus providing an intriguing second—or umpteenth—version for collectors. It is not likely to resemble much any you already know, which is one of the points of having different recordings of the same works, after all.

The recording is exemplary and the booklet notes from Richard Wigmore are as excellent as ever from that source (drawn from the relevant section of his indispensable Faber Pocket Guide to Haydn of 2009). There are authentic instrument rivals in Op 64, in the Salomon Quartet issue of 1996 (also Hyperion), the Festetics Quartet’s recording made in Budapest (Arcana 2003), and the Quatuor Mosaïques (2004 and 2008). All had some very good reviews and the last of those three has hitherto been seen as leading the field. It is possible to exaggerate the claims of authentic instruments to the point of dismissing all modern instrument rivals, which seems a rather doctrinaire way of denying oneself the delights offered by many other recordings from the Amadeus, via the Lindsays to the Doric. Suffice to say that all chamber music lovers need Haydn’s Op 64. This account by the London Haydn Quartet is an interesting version in its own way, and those collecting their Haydn series will surely want this instalment too, which I must note has been admired elsewhere and is one of The Times Records of the Year for 2018.