Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 33 (Russian)

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COMPOSERS: Joseph Haydn
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 33 (Russian)
WORKS: String Quartets, Op. 33 (Russian)
PERFORMER: The London Haydn Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDA67955

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In 1781 Haydn completed his first new set of string quartets in ten years and, trading on his growing fame, naughtily sold them ‘exclusively’ to three publishers simultaneously, while dedicating them to a Russian Grand Duke. For the latest instalment of their Hyperion series, the period instrument London Haydn Quartet has chosen the 1782 edition published by Schmitt of Amsterdam in which the scherzos of Nos 5 and 6 are printed before the slow movements.

As in their previous releases, these four players led by Catherine Manson deliver an amazing precision of intonation and articulation. Yet the piecing intensity of their virtually vibrato-less style, enhanced by the bright, resonant Hyperion recording, can sometimes weary the ear – only mitigated by their occasional resort to a remotely recessed sound. There are other extremes, too. The Presto finales of Quartets Nos 2, 3 and 5 are taken very niftily indeed. But one doubts whether Haydn expected, let alone got, anything as crisp and swift in his time. Conversely, they pace the first movement of No. 2 and the finale of No. 6 rather sedately.

Some of the local shaping of phrases and varying of tempos can also sound more mannered than spontaneous – the opening idea of No. 4, for instance. Yet these players bring a whimsical tenderness to the gentle finale of No. 5 – a movement that can often seem merely bland. And with the loss from the current catalogue of the wonderfully equable recordings by the Quatuor Festetics, it is difficult to find a period-instrument set that is preferable.

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Bayan Northcott