Haydn: String Quartets (complete)

COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Decca London
WORKS: String Quartets (complete)
PERFORMER: Aeolian String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 455 261-2 ADD 1973-7
Mozart was still in nappies at the time when Haydn more or less single-handedly invented the string quartet. Nearly half a century later, as he struggled – and failed – to complete his last quartet, Beethoven was already at work on his Eroica Symphony. In the interim, Haydn wrote considerably more quartet masterpieces than Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert put together, raising the medium to a level of sophistication, subtlety and originality that provided a yardstick for all later composers. Mind you, it took him some time to get there: it isn’t until the eighth CD of this set that we reach the first of the unequivocally great works, the six quartets which make up Op. 20. Before that, the music has a certain naive charm, particularly in the simple accompanied violin solos Haydn favoured for his slow movements, but there is scarcely a glimpse of things to come.

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With the six quartets, Op. 33, which he claimed were written in ‘a new and special manner’, Haydn firmly established the type of conversational texture that was to remain the basis of string quartet writing for more than a hundred years to come. These were the works that inspired Mozart to write his first great quartets, which he dedicated to the older composer in gratitude; and from here on, right up to the late quartets Opp. 76 & 77, whose visionary Romanticism seems to look forward to a much later age, Haydn’s astonishingly rich invention never flags.

The Aeolian Quartet’s epic cycle, originally released in the Seventies, was one of the gramophone’s major contributions to Haydn’s cause. Listening to the performances anew I find they have lost none of their freshness: they were based on the latest research (though I confess to still retaining a sneaking admiration for those naughty old Peters editions: in the minuet from the C major Quartet, Op. 20/2, for instance, the syncopation of the inauthentictied notes is infinitely more interesting than the bald repeated chords heard here), and the playing itself is always intelligent and thoughtful, with Emanuel Hurwitz’s sweet-toned violin-playing a great asset throughout. Nor is Haydn’s wit ever short-changed.

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The Aeolians can, however, be ponderous in minuet movements (not so much a question of tempo, as of ‘digging in’ too much), there are occasional lapses of intonation but nothing serious. Whether one wants so large a corpus of music played by a single ensemble is a question that needs careful consideration. Other quartets, among them the Amadeus, Chilingirian and Lindsay, have meanwhile made substantial and important contributions to this repertoire, though if it’s completeness you’re after, the Aeolians have the field more or less to themselves in the early works. It is good, too, to have the Seven Last Words with eloquent poetry readings by Peter Pears. Misha Donat