Haydn: String Quartets, Opp. 33 & 42

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Arcana
WORKS: String Quartets, Opp. 33 & 42
PERFORMER: Quatuor Festetics
CATALOGUE NO: A 414

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Over the last century, Hungary has proved especially prodigal of great string quartet line-ups – one thinks of the Budapest, Hungarian, Suk, Tátrai and Takács Quartets. Emerging two decades back, the all-Hungarian Quatuor Festetics was about the first in that succession to take up period instruments, but they retain many of the virtues of the older tradition. Tuning, balance and blend are impeccable; vibrato is not avoided, but used to specific expressive or colouristic effect. Those who hanker for a combination of the clarity of the best ‘period’ playing, with the warmth of the Hungarian tradition will find it here.

The Festetics’s approach to the six concentrated yet ever-unpredictable Op. 33 Quartets (1781) that Haydn justly claimed were written ‘in a new and special manner’, and to the intense little ‘beginners’ quartet’ Op. 42 (1784), is focused, intent but notably free from the extreme tempos and self-conscious mannerisms of certain other ‘period’ outfits. Just occasionally their moderation can settle into stolidity: the finale of the Quartet in G major, Op. 33 No. 5, could lilt more lightly. Yet the opening of the Op. 33 No. 6 not only lilts but also unfolds with a special affection and luminosity. 

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These qualities are enhanced by the placing of the first and second violins to left and right, so that they often seem to be conversing across the viola and cello, and by intimate recording. Appearing after a hiatus, the disc completes the Festetics’s well-received Haydn cycle, now also available as a boxed set, and will be widely welcomed. Bayan Northcott