WORKS: String Quartets, Op. 76/1, 5 & 6
PERFORMER: Alban Berg Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 56826 2
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect chamber music than the six quartets of Haydn’s Op.76. Published in 1799, this was the last complete set of quartets that Haydn composed. Although, as Rosemary Hughes has noted, the music is suffused with the gentle wisdom of ‘a lifetime’s experience, human and musical’, there is no diminution of intellectual vigour or clarity: ‘Nowhere is his thematical and structural concentration so powerful, his contrapuntal writing so strongly and closely woven, his ranging through the furthest reaches of key so searching and profound.’ For each of the three quartets under review here, the slow movement is perhaps the outstanding feature: the G major’s songlike Adagio sostenuto, the D major’s gravely poignant Largo, the E flat major’s blithely errant Fantasia – all distillations of a beauty that is as serene as it is implacable.
For the last decade, the Kodály’s recordings of the late Haydn quartets have been the jewel in the Naxos crown. Warmly expressive, insightful, these versions have remained unrivalled at any price level. Now the Alban Berg Quartet (following up their 1996 disc of Quartets 2, 3 and 4) offer a fascinating alternative, characterised by a drier acoustic, fleeter tempos and a generally lighter touch. The chief difference, though, is one of sensibility. Whereas the Kodály embrace Haydn’s gamut of emotions with transparent pleasure, the ABQ’s fastidious intelligence lends the music a contemporary edge – austere, restless, tinged by anxiety. Modernists will prefer the ABQ, Romantics the Kodály; Haydn aficionados should enjoy both. Graham Lock