Jens F. Laurson
WETA 90.9 FM Blog
, August 2010
Haydn’s op.33 string quartets were known as the “Russian Quartets” for some time, a nickname that, much like “Maiden Quartets” and “Gli scherzi”, didn’t stick. Many commentators have, with some pathos, declared op.33 the ‘birth of the string quartet’ or something to that extent. It is, so much is true, the point from which Haydn would move the genre forward more laterally than vertically, having climbed to the formal perfection of op.33 from the exploratory beginnings of opp.1 & 2, to op.9, op.17, and op.20. If that’s a way of diminishing the value especially of opp. 17 and 20, then it it’s the wrong approach of viewing op.33. If it means to highlight the great achievement that op.33 undoubtedly is, then by all means, think of them that way.
The op.33 quartets were written in 1781, the third ‘bloc’ among the Haydn string quartets, the first in ten years and marketed by Haydn as “of a completely new, special type”. They could well be more mature than the previous groups (Sandberger via Georg Feder), or offer a more refined synthesis of ‘gallant’ and ‘academic’ (Einstein), be richer in melodies and more concise, but they are not a quantum leap from their predecessors, despite the long pause between the two sets of six.
The first Vienna edition—“Dédiés au gran Duc de Russie”—was dedicated to Czar Paul I who lounged about Vienna with his wife, Princess of Wuerttemberg, in the official guise as a Grand Duke, hosting many private chamber music evenings where, we assume, one of the brand new op.33 quartets was played on December 25th, 1781. Hence the nickname. The Maiden nickname comes (as is the case with the “Sun” Quartets op.20) from the illustration on the cover of the Hummel edition. “Gli scherzi” comes from the fact that every Minuet is titled “Scherzo”.
“Prego umilmente d’osservare il piano, e forte”
Comparing recordings of string quartets is surprisingly difficult, because specific, direct comparison demands movement-by-movement, side-by-side listening, which is surely the most unnatural possible way to listen to this—or any—music. It says much about the genius of Haydn that after going through the same 13-plus hours of music multiple times, I’m not anywhere near being sick of any of these quartets.
Because a play-by-play of all movements would make for dreadful reading (it would also be of dubious utility), I will go only into a few select movements like that...the Kodály, generally on the temperate side, have rare moments where fleetness possesses them...Starting with the first movement (“Allegro moderato”) of op.33/1...The Kodály Quartet, this is perhaps a little surprising, are actually fast in the opening of 33/1, as fast in the first section as the BbQ[uartet]. Then they slow down while staying well clear of dragging. Coming to the Kodály’s recording, the first impression is always that of entering a church...It adds sheen or a glow to their playing which, after a while, suites their comfortable, none-too-aggressive Haydn style quite well....The second movement of op.33/2, the Scherzo-Allegro, contains some of the most darling music Haydn has penned. The Trio, wedged between two rustic dances, is a point of glissando and portamento induced brilliance...The Kodály Quartet employs a bit of Gemuetlichkeit and plays one tempo...These impressions turn out pretty representative for the entire set of quartets, although listening to the complete CDs rather than movement-by-movement, impressions do shift a little...The Kodály Quartet is charming, as always...