Michael Wilkinson
MusicWeb International
April 2021

The Op 76 Quartets are among Haydn’s greatest compositions, and certainly must count as the finest set of the 18th century (Haydn wrote them on return from London, starting in 1896) and they belong among the Himalayas of the quartet repertoire, with an kaleidoscope of technical and emotional levels. As with any inexhaustible masterpieces, no single performance will capture everything that can be said. Even if one has multiple recordings of these, these new versions are, to say the least, well worth adding. And they are very strong recommendations as a first introduction to the music—and at 2 for the price of 1, a terrific bargain.

These are period performances, performed from both the Longman, Clementi & Co (London) and the Arteria (Vienna) Editions of 1799. Time was when period recordings could be a touch squeaky, but there is no doubting the virtuosity, and, no less importantly, the blending of the instruments. ‘Period performances’ have sometimes sacrificed musicality for pedantic ‘authenticity’—there is no thought of that here. Meticulous scholarship and preparation are otiose if there is no spark of inspiration in performance. A particular triumph—of many—in this set is the rendition of Haydn’s sometimes achingly beautiful slow movements. I cannot recall performances more moving in their intensity and sensitivity. Even the most famous movement, the Kaiserlied, of Quartet No 3, becomes touchingly intense: to hear it in this performance is to encounter it as if for the first time.

In the minor key No 2, the grimness of the long first movement is well-captured, alert to the at times subtle—and at others, highly dramatic—mood changes within its span, before the lovely (and emotionally very different) slow movement. The endless inventiveness of Haydn, here and elsewhere, is the source of challenge to players and listeners alike. If there is the tiniest criticism to make of these performances, it is that once in a while a little of Haydn’s geniality is missing. The now 30-year old Kodály Quartet recordings on Naxos are stronger in this regard, and Haydn’s humorous touches are more vigorously emphasised, to give a worthwhile contrast to the new set. But in other respects The London Haydn Quartet—in superior recording quality—give us so much rich treasure.

These are special recordings of truly great music, and a more than worthy part of the marvellous ongoing series. Each time I have played them, I have found new insights.