HAYDN: "Prussian Quartets" Op. 50 – Prazak Quartet – Praga Digitals Multichannel SACD PRD/DSD 250251, 57:52 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
Haydn contracted for writing a set of six new string quartets with his publisher Artaria in the spring of 1784. In that agreement he requested patience from his publisher, a prescient suggestion by the composer for it would be three years before the quartets were finally delivered. During that interval two significant events occurred whose impact on Haydn’s creativity cannot be underestimated. In 1784-5 he was commissioned to write a set of six grand symphonies for the Concert de la Loge Olympique in Paris, a series of symphonies whose scale and originality were unprecedented in the genre. And on 15 January 1785 the six quartets that Mozart had written and dedicated to the older composer were played for Haydn. Their complexity, expressiveness and compositional daring were revelatory to Haydn, prompting his famous remark to Leopold Mozart that his son Wolfgang was "the greatest composer known to me in person or by name".
Haydn had entered a new phase of public music making in which a Classical simplicity of utterance and melodic freshness made his music immediately appealing. He simultaneously discovered the stylistic unity in his themes that gives his later works their folk-like quality, in contrast to Mozart’s aristocratic loftiness and emotional ambiguity. The six Op. 50 "Prussian" Quartets were finally completed in September 1787. They were dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, the cello playing monarch to whom Mozart would dedicate his final three string quartets. The “Prussian” Quartets are wonderfully expressive works, yet they still exhibit that Classical restraint whose bounds would eventually be shattered by Beethoven. The three quartets on this SACD – the third in E-flat major, the fifth in F major "The Dream" and the sixth in D major "The Frog" – are all cheerful untroubled works of striking originality. Featuring many innovations in quartet writing, including an equality of musical discourse amongst the four instruments, their greatest quality is a calm, graceful beauty that immediately entrances the listener. The two named quartets are especially memorable for their expressive originality and bucolic charm.
The Prazak Quartet plays this music as if it is in their blood. They emphasize the music’s graceful beauty whenever appropriate while never foregoing an opportunity to revel in its rustic high spirits and good humor. All of those musical qualities we consider Haydnesque are exhibited in their performance. Their playing is reminiscent of The Lindsays with a similar earthy, organic charm and expressive ease. Especially noteworthy is the Prazak’s mastery of Haydn’s subtle use of dynamics which is an important component of his stylistic arsenal. Their keen attention to detail is just one of the aspects of this recording that makes it so noteworthy.
The sound on this multichannel SACD is crisp and clear with reverberant warmth that allows the strings to glow. The inner voices in passages of denser texture are always distinct, allowing Haydn’s masterful contrapuntal writing to shine. The surround channels are primarily used for a soft, unobtrusive ambiance that widens the sound stage without making the quartet sound diffuse. This is a warm sonic experience that heightens the pleasure of these glorious quartets.
— Mike Birman