String Quartets, Op. 76
London Haydn Quartet
Hyperion CDA68335 152:39 mins (2 discs)
Here we have some of the greatest, most formally innovative, inventive and deeply felt string quartets ever composed, delivered by a quartet of players of faultless intonation, unanimity and blend, whose approach to Haydn has matured through eight much-praised previous albums of his quartets, and who have evidently prepared the present set with minute care.
And that is the trouble: scarcely a passage, sometimes scarcely a bar, is allowed to speak for itself. Either detail is subsumed under the apparent imperative of these players to sustain a self-consciously beautiful surface sound – Haydn’s often abrupt dynamic contrasts are smoothed over or disregarded altogether – or the unfolding of phrases and regularity of rhythms are encumbered with ‘expressive’ nuances. The result is a pervasive lack of cogency and drive, as exemplified in the laboured launch of the D minor Fifths Quartet, or the languorous opening ascent of the Sunrise Quartet. Who could guess the latter is marked Allegro con spirito? Who could dance to the pulled-about rhythm of the ‘Menuetto’ of the wonderful E flat Quartet, Op. 76, No. 6? For such mannerism, the relatively straight cantabile account of the profound Largo of the D major, Op. 76, No. 5 or deft delivery of its folkloristic finale, is insufficient compensation.
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The London Haydn Quartet play period instruments, are sparing with vibrato and have consulted the first printed editions of these works from 1798. But it is hard to believe actual interpretations around that time can have sounded much like these.
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