, February 2009
‘Joseph Haydn, Father of the Symphony’ has long been one of those reach-me-down and faintly patronising labels beloved of second-rate music teachers. When applied instead to the string quartet it has much more force, for it is fair to say that the quartet as a medium barely existed before Haydn began to write for it. Furthermore, the quartets range throughout his composing career, from the op. 1 works of his twenties, to those onwards from op.76, which belong to the last decade of his life.
The idea of combining two violins, viola and cello is a true product of the Viennese classical era. It grew, in all probability, out of the Baroque ‘trio sonata’, in itself a confusing name, for it in fact consisted of four players—typically two violins, keyboard and cello continuo. As the practice of continuo became less prevalent through the second half of the 18th century, a natural solution was to include a further instrument to complete the harmonies and enrich the texture; hence the introduction of the viola.
Much of this music was written when Haydn was Vice-Kapellmeister, and then Kapellmeister, in the household of his patron, Prince Esterházy. Most of the year would be spent at Eisenstadt, the prince’s country residence in Hungary, far away from the heady distractions of Vienna. Haydn later claimed that this isolation forced him to become original, in order to provide constantly fresh entertainment for the intensely musical prince. The composer was undoubtedly highly appreciated, even prized, by his employer, who nonetheless expected the loftiest standards of excellence from him, day in, day out.
So it is that in every one of the quartets in this splendid collection, there is the feeling of setting out on an entirely fresh journey. And, as they travel, the four companions engage in the most civilised conversations, laced with poetry, imagination and humour. It is one of the great miracles of musical history, comparable only, perhaps, with the cantatas of J.S. Bach, that Haydn was able to maintain such a sublime level of inspiration in such circumstances.
Naxos give us the quartets, recorded over a period of seven years or so—except for the ‘Cassations’ of CD4—in a handsome and substantial box, with a plump booklet of notes. The latter however is, though ample, not quite as generous as it looks, as it contains details pertaining not only to the quartets, but to the complete sets of the symphonies [8.503400], concertos [8.506019] and sonatas [8.501042] , all now available on Naxos. [The Oratorios are also now available on 8.507008—Ed.]The performers throughout are the excellent Kodály Quartet—though the violist (János Fejérvári) and cellist (György Éder) are changed for CDs 4 and 5, which were recorded some time after the others.
Having a single ‘resident’ ensemble throughout this huge undertaking is, on the whole, a very positive factor. There is a satisfying consistency of musical style and approach, and a comparable consistency of sound, though this is naturally affected by the acoustic qualities of the various venues. The Kodály are in many ways an ideal ensemble for this project; they lack mannerisms or affectation, relying on a fairly literal approach whereby the music’s innate wit and intelligence can speak for itself. As the cycle progresses, the music grows technically and emotionally more mature, which is mirrored in the greater intensity of the performances.
A great string quartet must be made up of four equal partners, and you could be forgiven for feeling that the lower three players in the Kodály lack sufficient musical personality. The leader, Attila Falvay, is so clearly the source of much of the energy and imagination, and I could sometimes wish for a greater degree of assertiveness from the other three. When the cellist, for example, has an identifiable solo, as at the start of op. 20 no. 2 (CD 10, track 5), he projects it superbly; at other times, I felt the need of a more strongly characterised approach. The imitative passage near the beginning of op. 50 no. 4 (CD 15, track 5) is a case in point. However, as the cycle progresses, the textures become more complex, with greater demands on all four instruments, and one becomes aware of the ever-increasing contributions made by the lower three players.
There are altogether seventy-seven works on the twenty-five CDs of this set, and a word of explanation about some of the contents is needed. Firstly, CD4; this consists of two quartets —op. 2 nos. 3 and 5—which are in fact arrangements of cassations for strings and horns, ‘cassation’ being a mid-18th century term similar to ‘divertimento’ or ‘serenade’. Then come the six quartets that make up op. 3, completing CD4 and filling CD5, and now generally accepted to be spurious. They are thought to be by one Romanus Hoffstetter, a Bavarian monk and composer, and a self-confessed admirer of Haydn. It’s not hard to sense a lowering of the musical standards in these works, despite their workmanlike qualities; the only disappointing thing is that the charming Serenade of op.3 no.5, long known in its orchestral version as the ‘Haydn Serenade’ is almost certainly not by Haydn at all.
The final CD contains, firstly, the string quartet version of the ‘Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ’, which Haydn made a few days after the first performance of the full orchestral version of these seven wonderful Adagios and their introduction and postlude. The disc is completed by the two existing movements of the quartet op. 103, written when Haydn was very frail and nearing his death.
To go through every single item on every single disc would be far too lengthy—and probably mind-numbingly boring too! So let me pass on some thoughts about various aspects of the quartets as I listened to them. It’s interesting to note that the early quartets of opp.1 and 2 are mostly in five movements, consisting of an opening Allegro, a central slow movement framed by two minuets, and a quick finale. Once we get past the cassations and the spurious op.3, we find Haydn in op.9 of 1768–1770 settling permanently on the four-movement pattern that also characterises the symphonies. For many years, he favoured placing the minuet second, prior to the slow movement. But from op.50 onwards (the ‘Prussian’ quartets of 1787), he preferred positioning the slow movement second, an order he retained in all but a few of the later works.
Haydn normally cast his opening movements in sonata form—though there are exceptions, such as the variations of op.17 no.5—and he handles the structure with a sureness of touch imbued, from the earliest works, with constant ingenuity. Many of these movements are best described as ‘monothematic’, that is to say dominated by one theme, rather than capitalising on contrast between first and second ‘subjects’. A good example of this is the opening movement of op.20 no.4 (track 1 on CD11), the fourth of the ‘Sun’ Quartets. The Kodálys, supported by excellent recorded balance between the instruments, bring out superbly the contrast between the ubiquitous four-note idea (first heard at the outset) and the more florid passages that seem to flee from its pursuing footsteps. Plenty of contrast, but one central idea.
These ‘Sun’ Quartets of 1772 (CDs 10–11) are in many ways a point in his output where Haydn, now entering his forties, seems to show a new mastery, and an ever-increasing understanding of the possibilities of the quartet medium. Op. 20 no. 2 in C begins with its main theme, an expressive and lyrical idea, in the high register of the cello, with the viola, and even the second violin, underneath. This is rendered beautifully by the Kodálys, with such rich tone that you might be forgiven for thinking that the group had been transformed into a cello quartet!
The so-called ‘Russian’ Quartets of op.33 take their name from the presence at their first performance in Vienna of the Russian Grand Duke Paul—later Tsar Paul II—and his wife. The most remarkable of them is possibly no. 1 in B minor, where the music takes many bars to establish its key, and indeed sounds as if it might belong in D major until twenty or so bars in. Here, I was struck by the unerring choice of tempo by these performers. This is by no means a minor issue, for getting the right speed is always the key to a successful revelation of a movement’s character. Now and again, I might feel that the slow movements could do with slightly more forward movement, or that one or two of the very quick movements—take op. 20 no. 6 (CD11 track 9)—could do with more ‘fizz’; but this is quite rare, and the Kodálys mostly get their tempi ‘spot on’.
What’s to be said about the nick-names that begin to occur thick and fast from op. 33 onwards? Most are inoffensive enough, but some are irritatingly arch, such as the ‘How Do You Do?’ soubriquet for op. 33 no. 5 (supposedly based on the rhythm of the main theme). Others are mystifying, such as ‘Ein Traum’ (‘A Dream’)—why? Others again are just plain daft, such as op. 33 no. 2, ‘The Joke’—as if this is the only Haydn quartet with a ‘joke’ in it! And how demeaning to refer to op. 33 no. 3 as ‘The Bird’ on account of its high melody with grace notes in the violin at the start, for this draws attention away from the tense accompanying quavers, with their abrupt silences and key changes, that surely inspired Beethoven when he came to write the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata.
Here and there in the set one encounters some less successful interpretations. The players sound as if they were in a rather ‘flat’ mood when it came to recording op. 50 no. 2 of the ‘Prussian’ Quartets (CD14). All four movements suffer from plodding tempi, especially the first, which, though marked Vivace, seems devoid of the necessary liveliness. Fortunately, such low-points are few and far between, and even here, the playing is affectionate and meticulous.
All are back on top form for the remaining Prussian Quartets on CD15, with a particularly scintillating performance of the ‘Frog’ Quartet, op. 50 no. 6. The name (see above!) comes from the croaking bariolage—repeating the same note on different strings —in the finale. The work has plenty of other delights, not least the Trio section in the Minuet, (track 11), with its sudden silences and harmonic red-herrings. Keep an ear open for these trios, because it seems to be the point in the format where Haydn often does the quirkiest things, and executes some of his best musical japes.
CDs 16 to 19 contain the twelve quartets dedicated to the violinist Johann Tost. These come in two sets of six, assigned respectively to opp. 54 and 55 (three each) and op. 64 (six). A couple of shocks lay in wait for me at the start of CD16; firstly, expecting op. 54 no. 1 in G major as printed, I jumped at a loud chord of C major! It transpires that Naxos simply have nos. 1 and 2 the wrong way round on the disc, which, though a mild nuisance, is hardly a big problem: I have not yet verified whether this is unique to my review copy. What was more startling was the change of acoustic, for, while almost all of the quartets up to this point have been recorded in the Unitarian Church in Budapest, we now move to the Hungaroton Studios. The ear soon adjusts, but I have to say I found the warm church acoustic far more to my taste than the slightly ‘garish’ studio sound, which is particularly unkind to the strings in the forte attacks at, for example at the beginning of op. 54 no. 2, where the chords sound somewhat raw.
The musicians and engineers seem to have agreed with this, because CD 17, though recorded in the same venue, has vastly improved sound, achieved—as far as I could tell—by moving the microphones a little further away from the players, thus providing greater ambience. Very welcome, though it does unfortunately emphasise CD16 as one of the least satisfactory discs, particularly when one also takes into account the error in running order.
Passing through op. 63 in B flat, with its witty first movement and harmonically inventive finale—moments of real magic—one comes to one of the supreme masterpieces, op. 64 no. 5, known as ‘The Lark’ because of the blithe melody in the first violin near the beginning of the Allegro moderato (CD 19 track 5). Listening to this, I was struck once again by the strong musical personality of the leader of the Kodály Quartet, Attila Falvay. He is so influential in projecting the character of each movement, which is as it should be. Haydn moved a long way, through his career, towards greater equality between the four parts of the quartet; but the first violin still has the lion’s share of the musical interest. In the ‘Lark’, so many of Falvay’s qualities are on display; his bright, focused tone in the very high register (as at the start of track 5), the grace with which he projects an expressive cantabile line (as in the beautiful Adagio cantabile, track 6), or the energy and precision of his bowing (as in the breathless moto perpetuo finale, track 8).
But if it’s whirlwind finales you’re after, then I have to say that the ‘Lark’ is trumped by the stunning final movement of op. 74 no. 1, the fourth of the six ‘Apponyi’ Quartets of 1793, dedicated to Count Anton Georg of that name (CD 21 track 4). All four players buzz frenetically, the swaying syncopations put me in mind of the Presto of Mozart’s ‘Prague’ Symphony, and the rustic codetta theme (around 1:15) looks forward to the finale of Haydn’s last symphony, no. 104 in D.
As we reach the later quartets, there is so much to wonder at, both in the content of the music and the quality of the performances. There is a new emotional depth to be heard in the Adagio sostenuto of op. 76 no. 1, the first of the quartets dedicated to Count Erdödy (CD 22), and once more, the Kodálys are alert to this, responding with a hushed intensity. This great work concludes with an extraordinary Allegro ma non troppo, which seems not to know if it’s in G minor or G major, before firmly plumping for the latter. I love the ‘Sunrise’ Quartet’s first movement (CD23 track 1) that alternates between near-static calm and frantic activity, or the finale’s ‘runaway train’ coda (track 4, 3:20 to the end). Op. 76 no. 5 has an extraordinary trio at its heart, with subterranean grumbling from the cello, and a finale with one of Haydn’s best jokes—a main theme that sounds for all the world like the end of the piece!
CD 24 contains just the two ‘Lobkowitz’ Quartets of op. 77. The second of these, Haydn’s final complete work in this genre, has an amazing passage in its first movement. Haydn seizes on a five-note figure, which works its way down to the bottom of the cello’s range, from where it eventually leads back to the recapitulation (track 5, 4:28 to 5:50). Though only a brief moment in the work, it foreshadows exactly how Beethoven liked to work his material, as well as the sense of drama he generated in his developments. Of course, there are many instances of Beethovenian ‘pre-echoes’ before this in the quartets; but here in this final one, it seems powerfully appropriate—even though Haydn and the young Beethoven didn’t ‘hit it off’.
The final CD contains two items that can be considered as ‘extras’, but which are nonetheless good to have. The ‘Seven Last Words’ consists of seven solemn adagios framed by a majestic introduction and a final Presto depicting the earthquake following Christ’s death on the cross. Anything but easy listening, naturally; but it remains impressive to observe how Haydn skilfully introduces variety by all the means at his disposal—texture, rhythm, key—in order to maintain interest. The two movements of op.103 in D minor—Andante and Minuet and Trio—don’t add up to much without the outer movements, but are an interesting curiosity.
If you want to possess the complete Haydn quartets on disc, there are two basic alternatives; you can either build them up from individual issues, which would certainly take lots of time and intensive research, or you can buy one of the two complete surveys currently extant, the present one on Naxos or that by the Angeles Quartet on Philips. I have not had access to the latter, though I have heard some of the CDs, which I found musically satisfying and beautifully engineered. The Naxos collection will hit the pocket a lot less hard, and I have to say that, with the fairly mild reservations about playing quality and acoustics I have expressed above, it is a fine achievement by the Kodály Quartet and the Naxos team. It has been quite a marathon listening my way through this set; but it has been deeply enjoyable too, and has left with me with the realisation that this is the most companionable of music by the most humble and at the same time one of the most brilliantly inventive of great composers.