Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 9

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Arcana
WORKS: String Quartets, Op. 9
PERFORMER: Festetics Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: A 911
Eclipsed by the slightly later Op. 20 quartets, Haydn’s Op. 9 set (1769-70) has received a pretty raw deal from players and commentators alike. In The Great Haydn Quartets (Dent, 1986), Hans Keller praised the D minor, No. 4, as ‘the first great string quartet in the history of music’, but unceremoniously dismissed the five major-keyed works as ‘boring’. True, the D minor stands apart from the others in its rhetorical power and mastery of development. But if the others have their longueurs — nowhere more so than in the gawky opening movements of Nos 1 and 3, with their excess of fussy violin figuration — they contain plenty of memorable, characteristic music: in the terse, witty finales, where textures tend to be more fluid and democratic than elsewhere; in the varied minuets, from the alfresco No. 5 to the suave, Mozartian No. 2; and in slow movements such as the C minor recitative and aria of No. 2 (shades here of Gluck) and the tender siciliano of No. 1.

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During its slowly evolving Haydn cycle, the Festetics Quartet, playing on period instruments, has grown noticeably more focused and confident. Though the leader might have brought a greater sense of fantasy to the aria slow movements of Nos 4 and 6, there are many compensations elsewhere. Tempi are invariably apt, rhythms spirited (try the impish finales of Nos 2 and 3), blend and balance finely judged; and if the Festetics’s basic sonority is more austere and abstemious with vibrato than some other period quartets (notably the Mosai’ques), it uses a wide dynamic range and brings a nice sense of timing to structural cruxes. Competition in these unfairly neglected works comes courtesy of the personable, if sometimes overcautious, readings from the Kodaly Quartet on Naxos. Unless you’re seriously strapped for cash, I’d suggest you go for the Festetics – more characterful, lighter on their feet and much better recorded. Richard Wigmore