HAYDN: String Quartets Op. 33 Nos. 1-6, “Russian” – Borodin Quartet – Onyx 4069 (2 discs)

by | Aug 4, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

HAYDN: String Quartets Op. 33 Nos. 1-6, “Russian” – Borodin Quartet – Onyx 4069 (2 discs), 53:17, 51:05 [Distrib. Harmonia mundi] *****:

The Op. 33 Quartets get their slightly puzzling nickname from a dedication to Grand Duke Paul of Russia, in whose apartments the quartets received their first performance on Christmas Day of 1781. It is clear that by then Haydn’s name had spread among cognoscenti far afield from the rural confines of Esterházy Palace. The groundbreaking Op. 20 Quartets of ten years earlier were responsible in no small measure for establishing his name in chamber music circles, but the publication of Op. 33 by the newly founded house of Artaria gave notice that Haydn had brought to maturity a musical form that had started life as a mere dinnertime divertissement for the nobility. Mozart was awakened to the new possibilities of the form and within a few years produced his greatest works in the genre, dedicated – naturally enough – to Haydn.

Op. 33 firmly establishes the direction that Haydn’s quartets were taking toward an intimate discourse among equal partners, rather than a showcase for the first violinist’s derring-do. The soulful Largo of Op. 33 No. 2 (nicknamed “The Joke” thanks to the surprising series of pauses in the last movement) really sets the stamp on these quartets. The expressive range of the string quartet would never be in doubt after utterances such as this.

But that’s not all; all six quartets feature a brand-new device, a scherzo that sometimes appears as the second movement, sometimes as the third. In a couple of the quartets such as Op. 33 No. 3, it’s hard to tell the difference between a Haydn scherzo and a Haydn minuet; in this quartet, it seems that the trio section has the darting playfulness of the typical scherzo. Yet this was a pattern that would be revisited by Haydn himself in his late Op. 77 quartets and of course by Haydn’s erstwhile pupil Beethoven.

The performances by the Borodin seem to perfectly balance the contrary elements of this wonderful music: the intimacy, the muscle and sinew of Haydn’s refined Classical style, the new-minted expressivity of the slow movements. The Borodin, of course, is a venerable and storied quartet—one that, by the evidence of this recording, has lost none of its panache over the years. The Borodin’s are exceedingly bright-eyed and highly efficient performances that don’t in the least slight the deeper sentiments of Haydn’s largos, including the tragic minor-key utterance of Op. 33 No. 5. In typically glowing sound from Onyx, set down in a concert hall in Moscow, these are performances to live and grow with, and I highly recommend them.
   
— Lee Passarella