New Hyperion : Haydn String Quartets – Op. 50


Hyperion Records has continued its excellent series of Haydn string quartets by the London Haydn Quartet with the newly released Op. 50 quartets.  This group of works has a tendancy to be somewhat of a dark horse among Haydn’s quartets, but these works are some of the his best and adventurous.

Here’s a lengthy excerpt from the notes by Richard Wigmore included with the CD:

None of Haydn’s instrumental works caused a greater stir than the so-called ‘Russian’ quartets, Op 33, which circulated throughout Europe after their publication in 1782. Eager to capitalize on their success, the Viennese publisher Artaria wrote to Haydn early in 1784 offering 300 florins for a new set of quartets. The composer accepted, but then became sidetracked by the ‘Paris’ symphonies and The Seven Last Words. The new quartets were eventually finished in July 1787, and published in December with a dedication (made at Artaria’s behest) to the cello-playing King Frederick William II of Prussia. By then, though, Haydn had sold ‘exclusive rights’ to William Forster of London—outrageous practice to us, but understandable in an age when composers had virtually no copyright protection. The autograph manuscripts of Op 50 were long lost until Nos 3–6 improbably turned up in Melbourne in 1982, having arrived there via a retired English colonel who had acquired the manuscripts in London in 1851. The autographs differ from the standard editions not only in details of phrasing, dynamics and articulation, but occasionally in the actual notes, as in the trio of No 5.

Some scholars have suggested that the ‘Prussian’ quartets are Haydn’s response to the six quartets which Mozart dedicated to him in 1785. True, two of them, Nos 2 and 6, are more spaciously conceived and more consistently chromatic than any of Op 33. There is Haydnesque wit and caprice aplenty in the finales, though the comedy is contained within subtly developed sonata-form structures such as Mozart favoured. Of the knockabout foolery found in the rondo finales of Op 33 Nos 2–4 there is barely a trace. Perhaps the intensity and sheer quirkiness of some of the Op 50 minuets and trios are Haydn’s answer to the subversive minuet in Mozart’s G major quartet K387. That said, there is little of Mozart’s vocally inspired lyricism and harmonic sensuousness in Op 50. This is, supremely, music about music: rigorously, obsessively argued, delighting in making much of little, not least in the quartets’ quizzical and/or unstable opening gestures.

034571281223No movement in Op 50 is more self-denying than the first of No 1 in B flat major, where Haydn sets himself the problem of how to construct a challenging argument with the stark minimum of material. With fanatical economy, the whole movement grows entirely from the opening four bars: a repeated ‘drum’ figure on the cello and a cadential phrase (an ending-as-beginning) featuring a gentle discord and the interval E flat–D which plays a crucial role in the drama. Haydn at once wittily refashions the cadence as a dancing triplet motif; and throughout the movement he explores the implications of the dissonant cadence with breathtaking inventiveness, not least at the start of the recapitulation, which steals in before we realize it. Resolution only comes with the coda, where the opening cadence finally assumes its rightful role as an ending, reinforced by a touch of nostalgic chromatic harmony.

The Adagio, a theme and three variations in E flat major, forms a relaxing interlude between the obsessively concentrated first movement and the unusually dense minuet. But this graceful siciliano-style movement has its own subtleties: the delicate interplay between first and second violins in the first variation, for instance, or the way in which the plaintive second variation (in E flat minor, taking up the ‘stray’ G flat in the theme’s penultimate bar) reinterprets the second half of the theme, compressing it from six to five bars. The movement’s songful charm made it instantly popular; and in 1793 it was engraved on Haydn’s monument in his birthplace of Rohrau.

In Op 50 Haydn seems more than usually preoccupied with the internal unity of each work. The minuet of No 1 opens with a compressed paraphrase of the Adagio’s theme in a chromatic, contrapuntal texture, with the melody passing from first violin to cello to second violin. The trio is less naive than first appears. Its second half intensifies the hint of chromaticism in the theme before the violins ‘fragment’ the theme in a miniature syncopated canon.

A downward arpeggio also initiates the finale, which sounds as if it is going to be a rondo but unfolds as another unpredictable monothematic sonata structure. In the development Haydn slows down the rapid motion and, after a mini-cadenza, leads the listener to expect a (rather premature) recapitulation. But this proves an elaborate hoax as the music immediately plunges into a free fugato. Haydn has more fun thwarting the listener’s expectations in the coda. In the first movement he had seemed to begin before the beginning. Now he teases us as to when the work actually ends, reviving a ploy from the ‘Joke’ Quartet, Op 33 No 2, but with far greater subtlety.

A far cry from the almost minimalist Op 50 No 1, the expansive first movement of No 2 in C major offers a clear-cut contrast between first theme, irregular and chromatically inflected, and the blithe, Ländler-like second subject. But instead of resolving the Ländler tune, Haydn elides it into a hesitant cadential phrase whose dissonant D sharp is immediately re-spelt as E flat to usher in a poetic digression in distant flat keys. The development treats both main themes in turn, the first in ‘learned’ counterpoint. Characteristically of later Haydn, the recapitulation is a radical re-evaluation of earlier events, presenting the main theme in close imitation first on cello and viola and then, upside down, on the violins.

As in Op 50 No 1, the Adagio, in F major, is relaxing rather than profound. Over a strumming, serenade-style accompaniment, the second violin quietly intones a rather formal theme. This turns out to be a warm-up act for the first violin, which enters an octave higher with a lavishly embellished version of the melody, initially with a touch of ‘sentimental’ chromatic harmony. The faint suggestion of an operatic parody is intensified when the music swoops melodramatically into C minor, with a hyperactive cello line. Not for the only time in Op 50, the whole movement seems ambiguous in tone, part-songful, part-ironic.

The toughly argued minuet, probing the implications of the cello’s dissonant C sharp in bar two, leaves its dance model far in the background. Matching the expansiveness of the first movement, the second half extends far beyond the listener’s expectations, culminating in a surprise plunge to F minor. Turning the minuet’s rising arpeggio on its head, the trio is again less innocent than it first seems, playing games with silence and ending with an unstable final paragraph over a chromatically rising cello line.

The finale begins not so much with a tune as a bantering, buffo exchange between the instruments—just the kind of writing that offended eighteenth-century critics with a humour bypass. Haydn then proceeds to dismember and rearrange the opening motifs with unflagging wit and verve. Mirroring the opening movement, there is also a contrasting lyrical, contrasting tune, with a suave chromatic flavour that some might hear as Mozartian.

In No 3 in E flat major Haydn returns to the monothematic economy of No 1. In the 6/8 Allegro con brio the almost comically laconic theme falls into two disparate halves, the first an embellished hunting-style motif. The hints of contrapuntal elaboration in the exposition are taken up and expanded in the closely woven textures of the development. Then, in another sly manipulation of expectations, Haydn introduces the recapitulation with the theme’s second ‘limb’. The Classical demands of symmetry are satisfied when the ‘hunting’ motif finally reappears, after a teasing pause, in the coda.

The not-so-slow second movement, in B flat major, opens with one of Haydn’s friendly ‘walking’ themes in a delicate two-part texture, with the cello taking the lead above a viola line that lies somwhere between an accompaniment and a counterpoint. In the theme’s second half, beginning as a violin duet, the lower instruments enter one by one, with magical effect. The whole wonderful movement evolves as an idiosyncratic amalgam of variation, ternary and rondo form, plus a hint of sonata development in the minor-keyed variation that follows the theme.

Haydn again emphasizes cyclic unity by basing the themes of the minuet, its trio and the finale on that of the opening movement. The minuet, saturated by the rhythm of its opening bar, is more genial and regular in phrasing than those in Nos 1 and 2, though it has plenty of surprises, including a section in the rich, dark key of G flat major. For once, the trio does more or less what is expected of it, courtesy of a lilting Ländler-type tune.

The finale, as obsessively monothematic as the first movement, works another catchy contredanse theme with dazzling legerdemain, expanding it in contrapuntal textures and reinterpreting it, with chromatic inflections, as a ‘second subject’. The development is unusually long, the recapitulation drastically compressed. Then, after a vehement outburst—the only fortissimo in the whole quartet—the movement dies away pianissimo with another variant of the ubiquitous opening motif.

The contrast between Haydn’s and Mozart’s approach to the minor mode is vividly encapsulated in the acerbic No 4 in F sharp minor, with its harsh sonorities and bleak, restive final fugue. The outré key, found in only two other Haydn works (the ‘Farewell’ Symphony and the late Piano Trio No 26), promises something special. Haydn does not disappoint in a work that ranks among his most challenging and unsettling. The opening Spiritoso, typically (and in extreme contrast to the melodically lavish Mozart), draws all its cussed energy from the angular contours and driving rhythms of the first theme. The development reaches a climax of tension with a passage of fierce canonic imitation on the opening motif. Although the (for Haydn) unusually regular recapitulation turns to F sharp major, the conclusion is too blunt to constitute a ‘happy ending’.

The gracious A major theme of the Andante provides necessary balm. But a subterranean cello growl heralds an A minor section whose dissonant harmonies and free contrapuntal textures evoke the world of the first movement. The two sections are then varied with more elaborate figuration, playfully decorative in the A major music, agitated in the A minor. After a second A major variation that pits second violin and viola against the first violin, the ending is as abrupt as that of the first movement.

The minuet replicates the Andante’s major–minor contrasts. Its main section, in F sharp major, worries insistently at its opening figure, and features an almost brutal swerve to the ‘Neapolitan’ chord of D major, fortissimo. Far from easing the tension, the F sharp minor trio is a quiet, single-minded contrapuntal development of the minuet itself, with the viola taking the lead.

Haydn closes with a rapid fugue, as he had done in three of the Op 20 quartets, colouring Baroque techniques with the drama of his sonata style. The tortuous subject outlines the interval of the diminished seventh, a crucial sonority in the first three movements; and in his quest for unity Haydn incorporates links with earlier events, not least the explosive fortissimo climax on an alien chord of G major near the end: perhaps the most violent climax in any Haydn quartet to date, and an echo of the dramatic ‘Neapolitan’ move in the minuet.

No 5 in F major could hardly be more different. In its outer movements, at least, this is the lightest and most amiable of the Op 50 set. But Haydn being Haydn, the genial, serenade-like tone coexists with immense compositional sophistication. Both the first movement and the jolly 6/8 finale, with its charming una corda effects (controlled slides between notes, using a single string), are as determinedly monothematic as most of Op 50. In the easy-paced opening movement Haydn wittily makes the disruptive repeated C sharps on viola and cello in bar five the mainspring of the dramatic action. At the start of the recapitulation the C sharps are immediately re-spelt as D flats and initiate a new contrapuntal development of the theme in A flat major. Beethoven was to do something similar, on a much grander scale, with the ‘rogue’ C sharps in the finale of his Symphony No 8.

Uniquely in Op 50, the centre of gravity lies in the middle movements. The serenely lulling motion of the Poco adagio, with its undulating chords below a rhapsodic violin line and gentle (occasionally not so gentle) dissonances, has spawned the nickname ‘The Dream’. The minuet, with its insistent grace-note upbeats, is sinewy and tonally restless, a world away from the traditional courtly dance. Towards the end a tiny canon between first and second violin skews the regular 3/4 metre, a dislocation which even the final cadence fails to resolve.

As in Op 50 No 4, the trio increases rather than decreases the tension with a concentrated development of the minuet itself. There is a crucial difference between the autograph and the familar printed editions here. Haydn wrote a D natural in the trio’s first bar, and emphasized the shock of the unison D flat in bar three with a sforzando accent. Early editors added an F minor key signature before the trio, so that the D natural becomes D flat, making the sforzando unison two bars later far less unsettling.

The most famous quartet of the set, No 6 in D major (‘The Frog’), is also the fullest and most brilliant in sonority, trading on the open-string resonance offered by its key. Like No 1, it begins with a musical pun in which a closing formula becomes an unstable opening. Throughout the movement Haydn restlessly probes the implications of this instability. Resolving cadences are constantly deferred, while textures are often contrapuntal and highly chromatic. Taking the hint from the cello’s feint towards G minor in bar 11, there are colourful flatwards digressions to F major in the exposition and B flat major in the recapitulation. Haydn continues to avoid emphatic cadences right through to the mysterious close, whose shadowed harmonies prepare for the D minor opening of the second movement.

Just as the opening Allegro was the most imposing of the Op 50 set, so the expressively ornamented Poco adagio is the most searching of the slow movements. Based on a single, siciliano-style theme, it alone uses full sonata form, with a development that moves from D flat major (introduced boldly after the F major close of the exposition) through A flat major and E major—a magical moment—to a fortissimo preparation for the recapitulation. True to his usual practice, Haydn resolves the tensions of the minor mode by ending serenely in D major.

The compact minuet undercuts its proud stride with flicking ‘Scotch snap’ figures, sforzando accents and whimsical hesitations. Haydn again turns convention on its head by writing a trio nearly twice as long as the main section. As in the near-contemporary Symphony No 85 (‘La Reine’), this music seems to get becalmed over a long-held cello pedal. Haydn then indulges in further delaying tactics by twice interpolating a whole bar’s rest.

After three predominantly serious movements, the finale is Haydn at his most antic, with a touch of grotesquerie in its pervasive use of bariolage—a rasping, quivering effect created by the quickfire repetition of the same note on adjacent strings. Someone in the nineteenth century thought this sounded like a croaking frog, and the nickname stuck. Like a loose cannon, the bariolage figure threatens to invade any of the parts at any time. There is also a clear-cut second theme, in F sharp minor rather than the expected A major, and emphasizing, perhaps with a touch of parody, the six-note falling figure with which the quartet had opened. In the closing bars Haydn creates a new comic-exotic tone colour by having all the instruments play the bariolage motif simultaneously. Like its three predecessors, the movement ends in a whisper.  (Richard Wigmore © 2016)

The London Haydn Quartet

One of the world’s leading period instrument string quartets, The London Haydn Quartet was born out of a passion for Haydn’s string quartets. Highly acclaimed for their series of Haydn recordings on Hyperion they have received invitations to many of the most important concert series in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, Finland, North America and Australia. They have started several of their own concert series in which they have performed the complete cycle of Haydn quartets. They have given recitals at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall in London, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the Cheltenham International Festival, the Granada International Festival and at Haydn festivals in Esterházy, Lincoln and Lyon, and at the English Haydn Festival.

In collaboration with period clarinettist Eric Hoeprich, with whom they have recorded the Brahms and Mozart quintets on the Glossa label, their recent concerts have included a tour of the USA and Canada, including a recital at the Library of Congress, and appearances in Serbia, Switzerland, France, Germany and the Czech Republic. Recent highlights have included the quartet’s Australian debut with performances at the Melbourne Festival and the Sydney Opera House and a return to Canada for a series of concerts across the country.

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