HAYDN: String Quartets Vol. 13, = Quartet Op. 74 No. 1 in C Major, Op. 74 No. 2 in F Major, and Op. 74 No. 3 in G Minor – Leipzig String Quartet – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG 307 2224-2; 77:39 (8/2021) ****:
Brisk and bracing Haydn from the Leipzig String Quartet.
Commentators often note the almost symphonic nature of Haydn’s Op. 74 Quartets in both scale and sound. There’s a very good historical reason behind this. While string quartets were traditionally written expressly with the idea of performance by gift amateurs in the salons of the well-to-do, Haydn’s Op. 71 and Op. 74 Quartets, three quartets to a package, were composed with very public performance in mind, specifically in the Hanover Square Rooms in London during Haydn’s second sojourn in the city in 1794. This hall was large enough to hold several thousand appreciative music fanciers, so big sounds and big gestures were definitely in order.
Each of the Op. 74 Quartets announces its purpose right away with a fanfare-like call to attention. In the case of Op. 74 No. 1, this is a three-note exclamatory phrase that establishes the tempo and character, if not the thematic content, of the first movement, a bouncy and buoyant affair in the best late-Haydn manner. If this and the first movement of the second quartet seem especially long, it’s thanks to the fact that the Leipzigers take every repeat, giving you extra value for your investment. The slow movement is an even-tempered set of variations. The finale, though, returns to the high spirits of the first movement, introducing themes of a decidedly folk-like character, complete with bagpipe imitations in the lower strings.
The introductory phrases in the second and third quartets have greater connection to the thematic material that follows, containing as they do the kernel of the first melody, an innovative touch that would be taken up by later composers from Schumann to Sibelius. That first movement in the second quartet contains some characteristic touches, such as the big pause after the introductory passage, followed by an echo of it in the exposition of the first theme. A typically Haydnesque inside joke, the introductory material and its expansion in the first theme recur in a pattern that led one commentator (Micha Donat) to quip “if the introduction sounds like a main theme, the main theme itself appears in retrospect like an introduction….”
The second movement is, once more, a relatively sedate theme and variations, and the minuet third movement is similarly uncomplicated, except for some odd, leaping figures in the first violin, which is taken up in turn by the other strings, adding a strangely ruminative element as it moves to the cello. The finale is a whirlwind sonata-rondo featuring more folk-like elements, including a minor-key theme with a Gypsy character.
The most famous of the Op. 74 Quartets, No. 3, gets its nickname “The Rider” from the driven, syncopated G-minor theme of the finale. The first movement is more equivocal, with a limping main tune anticipated, again, by the introductory passage that starts the proceedings. This is contrasted with an optimistic melody in B flat. Greater tensions emerge in the development section, but they’re resolved by a turn to G major in the recapitulation and abrupt little coda. The serene slow movement is briefly ruffled by some minor-key incursions, the minuet buoyant, except for a more subdued trio in G minor. Then it’s off to the races in the jogging finale, where insistent G-minor momentum gives way to a smiling theme in B flat. Once again, tensions mount through the development before Haydn settles on a G major conclusion brimming with confidence.
The Op. 74 Quartets present a complex emotional landscape that Haydn navigates using unexpected modulations, as well as the rhythmic “punctuation marks”—sudden pauses and abrupt tempo changes—that are defining features of his style. In this series of quartets (and its companion set, Op. 71), the composer reached new heights of expressiveness that he would exceed only in the capstone of his work in this genre, the Op. 76 Quartets, four years later.
The Leipzigers give us performances of great energy and verve, though maybe a bit intense for some listeners compared to those of other groups, including the very fine Takács Quartet, whose recording I reviewed way back in 2011. The Takács brings a little more Austro-Hungarian gemütlichkeit or, put another way, maybe adds a little less paprika to the mix. In all, though, the Leipzig Quartet offers entirely valid interpretations, and I’m glad I was able to sample and compare both approaches to these great works.
MDG’s recording matches the performances: bright, clear, immediate yet comfortably distanced, the hall presenting with a slightly dry acoustic. Altogether, this is an excellent continuation (we’re up to Volume 13) of a series that has been building for over a decade now.