Haydn: String Quartet No. 2, Op. 76/1(Fifths); String Quartet No. 3 (Emperor)

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: ASV
WORKS: String Quartet No. 2, Op. 76/1(Fifths); String Quartet No. 3 (Emperor)
PERFORMER: The Lindsays
CATALOGUE NO: CD DCA 1076
Haydn’s Op. 76 is arguably the greatest, certainly the most exploratory, set of string quartets before Beethoven. Sharing the London symphonies’ combination of profundity and popular appeal, the quartets are still more intellectually challenging and harmonically audacious. A movement like the finale of the G major, No. 1, explores tonal regions of visionary strangeness; the opening movement of the D minor, No. 2, works its initial falling fifths motif with unique rigour and passion, a ne plus ultra of thematic concentration; and the Adagios of Nos 1 and 3 (the latter based on the famous ‘Emperor’s Hymn’) attain a sublime, Wordsworthian serenity.

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While there is much to be said for the honest, ‘central’ readings of Op. 76 by the Kodály and the clear-eyed, distinctly post-modernist approach of the Alban Berg, it is the Lindsays who have taken me most deeply into this fathomless music. The players are not as polished as, say, the Berg; and intonation, especially that of the leader, with his bittersweet, faintly astringent tone, can falter in the heat of the moment. But no other quartet brings to this music such character and recreative flair, such variety of phrase and colour, whether in their turbulent, knife-edge performance of the finale of the Emperor or their magnificent, uncompromising reading of the first movement of the D minor, where the observance of the second repeat throws proper emphasis on the searing coda. In the finale of No. 1 the players handle the magical emergence into G major with ideal delicacy and grace; and, with broad phrasing and soft playing of haunting intensity – a Lindsay hallmark – they bring to the Adagios of Nos 1 and 3 the kind of concentration and inwardness that characterise their late Beethoven. A revelatory disc. Richard Wigmore