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"This is a monumental achievement. The fact that this complete cycle of Joseph Haydn's string quartets by the Kodaly Quartet also happens to be priced lower than any other choice on the market is a bonus, but the truth is that these performances are priceless. There is eloquence in the readings throughout, and there is opulence both in the playing of these Hungarian musicians and in Naxos' digital recording from Budapest.

"Haydn's quartets are civilized music, elegant and often deeply moving. Many people consider the string quartet the very definition of musical purity, and it is the realm where composers for centuries have been creating scores that are intellectually challenging and immensely satisfying. Yet the origins of the string quartet -- in many ways Haydn's invention -- were humble.

"The first were little entertainments using a configuration of whatever instrumentalists happened to be around. Haydn's own Op. 1, published in Paris in 1764, was billed as ``Divertimenti.'' As the Kodaly Quartet makes clear, however, there is depth here well beyond a musical trifle. By 1803, the time of Haydn's unfinished Op. 103, the string quartet was firmly established as the form of choice for innovation: A particularly rowdy student of Haydn's, Ludwig van Beethoven, was already redefining the string quartet's possibilities even as Haydn penned his last few notes.

"The Kodaly Quartet's performances are a pleasure. They are forward-looking and intensely personal, and the sheer emotional import of the slow movements in particular signals the coming of Romanticism. The Central European flavor of the string tone, its occasionally shameless vibrato together with the robust rendering of Haydn's stark dynamic contrasts, makes for a gripping listening experience.

"Gripping, and also very beautiful. The musicians can play as one, with an old organ's velvet textures; but they can also, in the charming minuets as well as in the witty variations that pepper the cycle, retain individual voices that reveal strong musical personalities. In that curious suite of adagios known as ``The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross,'' a Haydn masterpiece, the Kodaly Quartet finds variety in the long lines. Intonation is perfect, something that cannot always be said of the recent, often excellent competing recordings by the Quatuor Mosaiques.

"Competition, in fact, falls by the wayside after the Kodaly's cycle. These readings are at least as articulate as the most fastidious early instrument recordings, yet they also make a case for the warm tone and passionate phrasing many would associate with later music. In the Op. 20, where one can hear the birth of the Viennese classical style, the utter pleasure the Kodaly players take in making music is irresistible."

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