Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 54

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WORKS: String Quartets, Op. 54
PERFORMER: Ysaÿe Quartet
With its powerful rhetoric, impassioned, gypsy-style Adagio and radical slow-fast-slow finale, the C major Quartet, No. 2, has always eclipsed the other two works of Op. 54. But both are wonderfully inventive pieces, endlessly subtle and surprising in their arguments: say, in the shadowy remote modulations in the Allegretto of No. 1, belying the movement’s initial pastoral innocence, or the wit and poetry with which Haydn treats the theme in the finale of the E major, No. 3.


With its light, springy bowing and gracefully moulded phrasing, the Ysaÿe is at its best in the E major, the most urbane and lyrical of the three; and there is some sensitive shading and timing from the leader in the rhapsodic flights of the Adagio. The other two quartets are thoughtfully done, though the Ysaÿe’s Gallic suavity and fastidiousness can short-change the music’s boldness and animal spirits on the one hand and its elements of strangeness and wildness on the other. I’m thinking especially of the forceful, sonorous opening movement of the C major, at times almost dainty-sounding in the Ysaÿe’s hands, and No. 1’s Allegretto, which here trips along insouciantly, its pathos and mystery barely registered.


The Lindsays (ASV) are a mite less polished in ensemble and tuning, and use a less reliable edition. But their playing has far more fire and imaginative daring, with bolder colours and dynamic contrasts and a more vivid response to Haydn’s rhythmic and harmonic surprises. And where the Ysaÿe distils merely a contained melancholy in the Adagio of No. 2, the Lindsays’ smouldering, abandoned performance has a real whiff of the Hungarian puszta. I also prefer the ASV sound, warmer and less closely analytical than that on the new disc. So unless you want your Haydn elegantly understated, the Lindsays remain unrivalled in these marvellous works. Richard Wigmore