This is the seventh two-disc volume of Haydn’s quartets to come from this source. Eschewing the early divertimento-type pieces for the genre, the London Haydn Quartet have thus far given us the works chronologically, at the rate of roughly one issue per eighteen months. We’ve had Op 9, Op 17, Op 20, Op 33, Op 50, Op 54/55 and now Op 64. I’m speculating of course, but I rather suspect sets of Op 71/74, Op 76 and finally Op 77/103/Seven Last Words will complete the cycle. As one of those individuals who really can’t get enough Haydn, I’ve been an avid collector of this series from the outset. Its attractions have been reinforced throughout by Richard Wigmore’s wry, informative notes and not least by Hyperion’s splendidly apt cover art, incorporating details from the glorious London scenes of ‘The English Canaletto’ Samuel Scott.
But what of the interpretation and playing? Of course, the number of approaches to this repertoire is infinite. And frankly, wildly contrasting performances by any number of groups have provided infinite pleasure. How, for example, could one not enjoy the various non-HIP readings, say of the Aeolians (Decca), Lindsays (ASV), the Dorics (Chandos) or my preference (not least for its gloriously warm recording) the Angeles (Philips)? These wondrous masterpieces can withstand the well-judged interpretive whimsies of the best groups for ALL human life is here. For the purposes of this review, however, I shall restrict my comparisons to HIP competitors, namely Hyperion stablemates the Salomon Quartet, and most obviously the magnificent readings of the Quatuor Mosaïques on Naïve, which I imagine would be many readers’ ‘Desert Island’ choice. (The other period cycle that is often discussed is the Festetics Quartet’s on Arcana, which is highly regarded but hard to come by. For my part I’ve never heard their readings of Op 64).
I think the LHQ approach can be characterised in general terms, as an attempt to evoke as authentically as possible the context of a period performance of this music, rather than disporting erudite interpretive decisions for their own sake, or simply playing the presto finales really fast because they sound exciting. To my ears their philosophy really pays off in these accounts of the Op 64 quartets, and ultimately Haydn is the beneficiary. Thus vibrato is kept to a minimum, repeats are observed (not the case with the Mosaïques or Salomon), and at the heart of each reading is the (crucial) understanding of the music as being designed for domestic performance. Consequently, I find that their fastidiously prepared performances consistently provide a real balm for the ear. Back in the 1980s and 1990s when the Salomons laid down their first recordings, the overall sound they made seemed odd to those of us brought up with conventional instruments (in my case the LPs of the Aeolian Quartet). So, this weird, wiry sound quite distracted from Haydn’s actual music though hearing them now, there is no shock. In fact, they were blazing a trail for groups like the LHQ decades later. And with the greatest respect, I find the Salomon’s tone on those discs has dated surprisingly quickly. It certainly seems rather thin compared to their successors though one could never criticise the civility of the playing. As for the Quatuor Mosaïques, their superb Haydn recordings are rightly revered but they amplify Haydn’s penchant for subtle (and not-so-subtle) humour, risk- taking and showmanship. It’s a completely different tack from the LHQ—frankly, I’d hate to be without either. Thankfully reviews of this type are not about asserting a preference. Sometimes I just want to hear Haydn beautifully played, with the appropriate period manners, with as little adumbration as possible—and that’s where the LHQ have undoubtedly scored in the previous instalments of this cycle.
That said, I feel the tempi they adopt in some of the faster movements in this set are occasionally too conservative. The best known of the set is No 5, ‘The Lark’, and the initial pace of its opening Allegro moderato seems a tad leisurely, to the point that Catherine Manson’s solo line is a little tentative in getting off the ground. The impression is reinforced by the extending of the movement (by the repeats) to the nine-minute mark. The third movement, Menuet & Trio, also seems a little lethargic. But balance that against a degree of conversational intimacy that typically eludes other groups and a deeply sympathetic recording, which highlights this aspect of the LHQ, and one gets a real handle on the considerable virtues of their approach. Perhaps this is best revealed in an account of the Presto finale, which is given much more space than seems the norm these days, and Haydn’s Terpsichorean muse is allowed to speak without unnecessary haste.
If ‘The Lark’ is the best known of these works, one that seldom features in recital programmes is No 1 in C major. It has a winning urbane charm but has perhaps been seen over time as somewhat less characterful than its siblings, ‘generic’ Haydn perhaps. Here, with the repeats, it extends to some 27 minutes. There’s certainly more ‘moderato’ in its cello-led opening movement here than ‘Allegro’ but there is nothing sluggish whatsoever about the playing of the LHQ. In fact, there’s a feeling, as always with this group, of being lost in the moment, of relish and total engagement. The compact concluding Presto here bounces and fizzes, providing a delightful contrast to the relaxed aura that exudes from the central panels. Its unexpectedly quiet conclusion is perfectly weighted and not so unexpected in the context of Haydn in general and this Op 64 set in particular. The ploy is then repeated in each of the first four quartets.
No 2 in B minor is the only minor key work in the set and despite the Allegro spiritoso marking of the opening, the LHQ again find little need to rush. This is perhaps the most inscrutable quartet of the set in that mordant humour is set side by side with apparent pathos, moods that emerge and dissipate most effectively in this performance. At its heart is an Adagio ma non troppo whose singing lines speak here quite without pretension. The following Quartet No 3 in B flat is arguably Haydn’s wittiest contribution to the set and the one that most obviously lends itself to idiosyncrasy. The LHQ enhance the humour most delightfully with their tastefully deadpan approach. Variations in tempo are subtly deployed to emphasise Haydn’s mercurial excesses, and through this considered restraint the results speak for themselves. There is ‘con spirito’ aplenty in the finale here as well, with playing as ‘unbuttoned’ as the LHQ get. As for the remaining quartets in G (No 4) and E flat (No 6), the performances teem with concentration, elegance and invention; the E flat in particular packing an extraordinary amount of musical incident and detail into a mere 21 minutes.
Those readers who have been collecting this series will know exactly what they’re going to get from the London Haydn Quartet—a cultivated, really unshowy group who prioritise Haydn’s music above any superficial glitter. Yet they are a group with what I think is a recognisable, signature style, one that has been maintained over the years despite occasional changes in personnel (I am confident I could identify them at once in any ‘innocent ear’ type exercise). Inevitably, Hyperion afford them a warm, detailed recorded sound that shuns artifice. While I would never want to be without my Quatuor Mosaïques discs, I think the LHQ consistently offer something even purer in terms of HIP Haydn. This set has provided a perfect musical backdrop to our enjoyably home-based Christmas this year.