Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 64/1-3

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: ASV
WORKS: String Quartets, Op. 64/1-3
PERFORMER: The Lindsays
CATALOGUE NO: CD DCA 1083
Though none of these quartets is among Haydn’s most favoured, all three are marvellously inventive works, endlessly subtle and surprising in their arguments. Take the astonishing harmonic expansion – in effect a second development – near the close of No. 1’s first movement; or the zany ‘galloping’ figure which follows the suave opening theme of No. 3 – a typical piece of Haydnesque comic disruption. There is humour of a more acerbic, disquieting kind in the B minor Quartet, No. 2, with its incongruous juxtaposition of Sturm und Drang rhetoric and footling buffo tunes, its mordant, naggingly obsessive minuet and its weird play with phrase structure and silence, above all in the gypsy-flavoured finale.

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As you’d expect, the Lindsays give bold, upfront performances, relishing the music’s physical and intellectual energy. Compared with the mellow, cultivated performances from the Kodály Quartet (Naxos), the Lindsays live more dangerously, with consistently more zestful tempi (not just a question of speed) and more urgent and spontaneous-sounding phrasing. Sometimes the Lindsays’ approach has its downside: in the finale of No. 2, for instance, edge-of-seat excitement (a real whiff of the Hungarian puszta here) comes at the price of some scrappy intonation and approximate rhythmic control. And parts of No. 3’s finale are even more precarious. But for all their imperfections the Lindsays are always compelling: their buoyant tempo and sharp-featured phrasing capture the faintly ironic scherzando flavour of No. 1’s not-so-slow movement far better than the over-demure Kodály. And the Adagios in Nos 2 and 3 are played with all the Lindsays’ familiar inwardness and intensity – listen, for instance, to the hushed, withdrawn quality of tone they find for the strange, ruminative coda in No. 3. The recorded balance can short-change the cello, and there are the usual gasping inhalations from leader Peter Cropper. If you like your Haydn more gracious and urbane – and more scrupulously tuned – then the Kodály (a true bargain) or the Amadeus (DG) should fit the bill. But for all the Lindsays’ moments of overenthusiasm, their inventive, exhilarating performances would now be my top recommendation in these absorbing and still under-appreciated works. Richard Wigmore