WORKS: String Quartets, Op. 20
PERFORMER: Doric String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10831
The six Op. 20 quartets of 1772 are Haydn’s first unequivocally great works of their kind. They find him revelling not only in novel quartet sonorities, but also in innovative formal designs. In one of them a slow movement in the manner of an operatic scena is broken off in mid-stream, and linked directly to the minuet; while everywhere there is a feeling of fragmentation, of music dissolving before our ears. Not by chance, in this ‘storm and stress’ period of Haydn’s career, we find two works in minor keys.
The Doric Quartet, making sparing use of vibrato, play with much sensitivity. Their slow movements, in particular, are beautifully done. So, too, are the three whispered fugal finales, as well as such pieces as the deeply expressive opening movement of the F minor Quartet, Op. 20 No. 5. But elsewhere a determination to characterise the music all too often leads to exaggerated pauses and tempo fluctuations that threaten its coherence. One casualty is the vigorous first movement of the G minor third Quartet, whose momentum is compromised by an overly expressive approach; while an arbitrary elongation of the silences between the opening phrases of No. 4 in D weakens the surprise of Haydn’s switches in tonal direction. That surprise actually relies on the music’s deliberate symmetry. For all the positive aspects here, it’s a pity the players couldn’t have placed more faith in the letter of Haydn’s text.