HAYDN: String Quartets Volume 8 = String Quartets Op. 54 Nos. 1–3 – Auryn Quartet – Tacet Real Surround Sound DVD-Audio D176, 73:20 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
This is Tacet’s DVD-A version of Haydn’s String Quartets Vol. 8, first released on CD in 2009. The gimmick here, as with all releases in Tacet’s line of Real Surround Sound DVDs, is to place the listener in the midst of the ensemble performing. [One quartet member at each speaker of a 4.0 channel display…Ed.] Sure, it’s not exactly the way you’d hear a string quartet in recital, but the surround-sound experience, executed as well as the Tacet engineers do, brings its own special rewards. [Although this one doesn’t, those whose running time is beyond the 80 minute limit of CDs and SACDs can be accommodated on a single DVD-A—up to five hours!…Ed.]
The Opus 54 Quartets, along with Opus 55, form the usual group of six that Haydn typically wrote as a batch, in this case for the violinist Johann Tost, who lead the second violins in Haydn’s Esterhazy Palace Orchestra before he lit out for Vienna to establish himself as an agent for music publishers. Written in 1788, Opus 54 has all the earmarks of what could be considered Haydn’s middle period quartets, starting with his breakthrough Opus 33 Quartets and ending with the last of the so-called “Tost Quartets,” Opus 64. These works have the smaller-scaled, more intimate character of the quartets preceding Opus 71, which Haydn designed specifically for the very public performance venues of London rather than for the salons of Vienna.
Like all the quartets following Opus 33, the Opus 54 Quartets also represent Haydn’s constant experimentation in the genre, No. 2 in C Major being the most experimental of the bunch. In the opening Vivace, Haydn introduces modulations to distant keys that ticked off a reviewer writing in the Allegmeine deutsche Bibliothek, who otherwise had high praise for the quartets: “If there is something we should bear in mind, it is that the modulations are sometimes perhaps rather too striking. An example is found in the second quartet, in which the composer modulates from C major in A flat major near the start and remains in it for several bars.” But the most striking bit of experimentation comes in the last movement of the piece, where Haydn starts not in the typical up-tempo vein of most finales but with a long and reflective Adagio. When he finally settles down to the expected Vivace, it’s not too many measures before the Adagio returns, and the work ends, very untypically, pianissimo.
No. 1 in G Major also ends with a surprise; the three repeated staccato notes with which the movement starts and which act as a motto throughout return at the very end, first piano and then after a considerable pause, double-piano. The movement is full of similar stops and starts, as the motto figure is repeated again and again, now piano, now forte, now sforzando. It’s the same kind of trick that Haydn would pull in the finale of Symphony No. 103, where the four-note motto figure recurs dozens and dozens of times in a variety of guises. As usual, Haydn is full of tricks in Opus 54.
The Allegmeine deutsche Bibliothek critic also complained about the dominance of the first violin in these quartets: “It is a pity that. . .the composer gives most of the main ideas and virtuoso writing to the first violin, using the other instruments almost exclusively for mere accompaniment.” He may have felt differently if he could have heard this surround-sound recording, one of whose virtues is to highlight the rich viola tone of Stewart Eaton, the deep sonorous cello of Andreas Arndt, thanks to their placement in the left and right rear channels respectively. I confess I don’t hear much from Jens Oppermann; the second violin is a kind of silent partner in these quartets. But first violinist Matthias Lingenfelder’s pure, spot-on intonation and sweet tone are very much front and center (or rather left of center).
As always, the superb musicianship of these players is a joy to hear, and the performances are just as fine as the others I’ve savored in this Haydn Quartet series, which has to be considered a first choice. And as is almost always the case, the recorded sound from Kirche Honrath is resonant but wonderfully rich and clear.
A 10-year anniversary of Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society gets a welcome vinyl upgrade.