Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 50/1, 2, 3 (Prussian)

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: String Quartets, Op. 50/1, 2, 3 (Prussian)
PERFORMER: Kodály Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 8.553983
Haydn’s Op. 50 quartets were published in 1787, five years after the previous, high-spirited Op. 33 set which had proved enormously popular and influential. Nicknamed ‘Prussian’ because of their dedication to Frederick William II of Prussia (a keen amateur cellist), these latest quartets found Haydn in unusually serious mood. The highly concentrated writing required for The Seven Last Words, on which he’d been working in 1786, seems to have been carried over into the Op. 50 quartets, though the earlier work’s intense spiritual passion has been replaced by a more purely intellectual focus.

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The Kodály Quartet’s ongoing Haydn quartet cycle has rightly been acclaimed, even if its magnificent performances on early issues (such as Opp. 71, 74 and 76) have not always been maintained on later volumes. On this first instalment of Op. 50, the performance is generally warm and lively, though the players don’t seem particularly well-attuned to the tough-minded, lean, enigmatic qualities of the music. Of these three quartets, the second is the most striking, not least for its Adagio’s tongue-in-cheek serenade and a wiry, witty Menuetto. Unfortunately, it is here that the Kodály Quartet is at its most disappointing and the Salomon Quartet, on its benchmark 1993 recording, at its best, sounds more alert to Haydn’s subtleties in the first two movements and dispatches the remaining pair with a touch more gusto and élan. Overall, the Kodály is a little too staid, and its failure to observe many of the repeats often sells the music short. Graham Lock