Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 64 Nos 1-6

Doric String Quartet (Chandos)

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Haydn String Quartets, Op. 64 Nos 1-6
Doric String Quartet
Chandos CHAN10971(2) 66:48 mins (2 discs)

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When a performance of a Haydn quartet really works, it leaves you marvelling at the sheer inventive brilliance of the man. Bach gave us The Art of Fugue; Haydn’s great quartets could be justly termed The Art of Surprise – with the proviso that the surprising course Haydn takes always turns out to make deeper and more delightful sense than anything we mere mortals might have expected. That was the sensation through this set of the Op. 64 Quartets. These are performances that take you inside the music, so that it’s almost possible to hear them with a performer’s ear and experience the delight as the notes leap off the page and into life – the expertly attuned recordings certainly help. Even the seemingly artless introduction to the famous Lark Quartet (No. 5) is charged with joyous potential energy, and when the violin soars above it, the sense of promise fulfilled is spirit-lifting. It may seem like a back-handed compliment, but some of the most memorable playing is in the Trio sections of the Minuets – so often thrown away as nothing more than mere amuses bouches. The knowing humour of Beethoven, the warm charm of Schubert, and the mordant irony of Mahler and Berg all seem to have their roots here. Could there be a little more tenderness, sensuous warmth – especially in some of the slow movements? Perhaps, but it’s playing that convinces on its own terms, and technically it’s beyond criticism. If you’re still shy of exploring Haydn’s quartets, you could do a lot worse than start here.

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Stephen Johnson