WORKS: String Quartets, Op. 55
PERFORMER: Panocha Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: SU 3192-2
Haydn was the composer most responsible for transforming the quartet from its modest beginnings into the profoundly expressive form it had become by the time of his death in 1809. A few small signs of this future glory are discernible in the six quartets of Op. 1. Dating from the 1750s and conceived simply as divertimenti, these lightweight pieces show sufficient personal touches to attract the Haydn aficionado. The Petersen Quartet plays with a winning facility. Its preference for lively tempi lends an effective spring to the outer movements but also means they glide a little too slickly through the charming cantabile Adagios.
By 1788 Haydn had been joined by his friend Mozart as a leading exponent of the quartet form. The latter’s influence is evident in the harmonic language of the Op. 55 quartets, though the F minor Quartet in particular remains a highly individual work. Prague’s Panocha Quartet offers a fluent, measured finesse that often beguiles, though I’d also recommend the Lindsay Quartet (ASV) – its vivacity and rhythmic bite better highlight the music’s inherent drama.
Haydn’s last quartets, the two Op. 77 of 1799 and the unfinished Op. 103, are among the great masterpieces of Western music. L’Archibudelli presents them as volatile, declamatory works played with imperious virtuosity. Their bravura is exciting but can seem perversely inappropriate, as when the group speeds through the F major Quartet Andante and completely misses its tragic undertone. So my top recommendation remains the Quatuor Mosaïques (Astrée), whose finely-honed, richly-nuanced readings are perfectly attuned to the music’s autumnal grandeur.