ALBUM TITLE: Haydn
WORKS: String Quartets Opp. 54 & 55
PERFORMER: The London Haydn Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 68160
Listening to these half-dozen masterpieces – the first half of the series Haydn composed for the violinist and venture capitalist Johann Tost – is to be struck by the music’s wonderful originality and inventiveness. There’s not a single movement here that isn’t stamped with Haydn’s genius – from the smouldering gypsy-style improvisations of the last two Op. 54 quartets, to the energetic fugal episodes in Op. 55 Nos 1 and 2, and the astonishing valedictory last movement of Op. 54 No. 2.
The London Haydn Quartet are perhaps at their best in the presto finales, where their unflagging energy is exhilarating. Their deeply-felt account of the Largo from the E major last quartet in the Op. 54 triptych is also impressive, as is the way they make the aching dissonances of the minuet’s trio in Op. 54 No. 2 sound like cries of despair. But their general reluctance to offer really incisive playing, or any genuine staccatos, sometimes makes for less lively results than is ideal. The assertive fanfare-like beginning of the C major Quartet Op. 54 No. 2, for instance, really needs to be more forthright and more strictly in tempo, and the same is true of the start of Op. 54 No. 3. And while violinist Catherine Manson handles the C major quartet’s gypsy passages with admirable freedom, they teeter on the edge of sounding like café music.