Haydn: String Quartet, Op. 17

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: String Quartet, Op. 17
PERFORMER: The London Haydn Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67722

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Composed around 1770 in rapid succession to the six quartets Op. 9, Haydn’s Op. 17 set is at once fully-ripe with promise yet recurrently frustrating.

Over and again, he seems about to break through to the fully characteristic manner of the inspired Op. 20 set, published only two years later – in the boldly argued opening movement of Op. 17 No. 4, for instance, or the enchanting folkloristic minuet and trio of No. 3 in E flat.

Elsewhere, however, stylistic lurches and bald textures tell of a 30-something composer still laying the foundations of a novel medium that in due course would enable him to compose no fewer than 45 peerless masterpieces.

The London Haydn Quartet, whose recording of the Op. 9 set on Hyperion has already been widely praised, play on gut strings with classical bows. Those who want a ‘period’ performance should not hesitate; they are unlikely to hear any better of its kind.

Articulation is light, precise yet full of nuance; vibrato is scarcely detectable yet intonation is immaculate; the whole texture shines. Of course, it remains an open question as to whether a scrupulously recreated period style brings us closer to the music or serves to distance it; whether a more gutsy ‘traditional’ approach, such as the vibrant Kodály Quartet offer in their Op. 17 CDs on Naxos, may not involve the modern ear more directly in the emotion and substance of the music.

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Happily we can now make a direct comparison. Bayan Northcott