String Quartets, Op. 17 Nos 2, 4 & 6
Leipzig String Quartet
MDG MDG3072142 63:46 mins
Haydn was nearing 40 when, in 1771, he wrote the six quartets we know as his Op. 17. He called them divertimentos, and it wasn’t until the following year that he really mastered the string quartet medium with his first great series, Op. 20. All the same, the earlier pieces aren’t without their striking moments.
The C minor Quartet Op. 17 No. 4, for instance, ends with a composed fade-out in the major – an effect Haydn used again in one of the Op. 20 quartets, and one that pleased Beethoven enough for him to imitate it in several of his early C minor works. Just as original is the way Haydn’s quartet begins, with two long unaccompanied violin notes which make us think we’re about to hear a piece in a completely different key. Haydn exploits the deliberate deception in subtle ways later on in the opening movement, and he took up the same idea again in two of his later, and greater, quartets. There’s another startling inspiration in Op. 17 No. 2 where the minuet’s trio breaks off in midstream, and the reprise of the minuet abruptly begins – again, a feature that anticipates future developments.
The Leipzig Quartet offers affectionate performances of these apprentice pieces, and they play such moments as the exotic gypsy-style passages in the finale of No. 6 with real gusto. It’s a pity the leader is so reluctant to provide mini cadenzas where they’re patently called for in some of the slow movements, but these are otherwise stylish accounts. The recording is admirably lifelike.