HAYDN: String Quartets: 6 Quartets, Op. 76; String Quartet in G Major, Op. 77, No. 1; String Quartet in F Major, Op. 77, No. 2; String Quartet in C Major, Op. 33, No. 3 “Bird”; HOFFSTETTER: Serenade, Op. 3, No. 5 – Alban Berg Quartet – Warner Classics 682564612345 (3 CDs) 60:28, 66:06, 72:08 ****: 

Recorded originally for EMI in 1993-1998, this assemblage of mature Haydn quartets by the Alban Berg Quartett in live performances – Guenter Pichler and Gerhard Schulz, violins; Thomas Kakushka, viola; and Valentin Erben, cello – endures as a vital contribution to the chamber music medium. The sound of the recordings remains uniformly clear and warm, the ensemble’s intonation and vibrant accuracy inimitable. The Alban Berg Quartet superbly captures all the elements that constitute the Haydn style: infectiously lyrical melodies imbued with incisive wit; vigorously rhythmic tempos, courtly and rustic; an architectural sense of design; and, above all, a deep humanity.

Anyone already familiar with the Haydn Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, No. 5 will revel in the heightened delights of the outer movements, particularly the illuminated wit of the Finale: Presto. The E-flat Major Quartet, Op. 76, No. 6’s opening movement, Allegretto – Allegro, consists of a theme and variations of remarkable beauty of execution. The sonic definition of the parts, especially in the two bass instruments, makes us attend to the passing harmonies that gird Haydn’s especial sense of musical invention. Given the many years since I audited any performance of the d minor Quartet, Op. 76, No. 2 “Fifths,”  I must confess to have been literally enchanted by the profundity and intensity of expression the Alban Berg ensemble bestows upon this remarkable score. If the unique aural world of the Op. 76, No. 4 “Sunrise” Quartet in this rendition moves you not, then you must be “blind” to the oceanic variety of colors Haydn brings to the string quartet genre.  For an entirely “lighter” take on the Haydn quartet experience, try the Alban Berg’s rendition of the “Bird” Quartet, Op. 33, No. 3, whose Scherzo justifies the appellation. Haydn himself claimed that his Op. 33 means “to appeal to the highest level of the intellect.”

The entire set concludes with the Serenade in C formerly attributed to haydn, but now conceded to be by Roman Hoffstetter (1742-1815). This lovely andante cantabile provides the exquisitely galant nature that defines a courtly spirit which has all but passed away. A generously humane moment, the piece strikes an immensely refined chord in us we crave, consciously or not. This collection comes highly recommended, irreplaceable!

—Gary Lemco