HAYDN: String Quartets Volume 14 = String Quartets Op. 77 Nos. 1–2; String Quartet Op. 103; String Quartet Op. 42 – Auryn Quartet – Tacet 191, 78:36 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
The back of the booklet accompanying this CD bears the legend Fine. Laus Deo. (“The end. Praise God.”) This comment and prayer was routinely added at the end of Haydn’s finished manuscripts—of course without a hint of sarcastic T.G.I.F. levity from the pious former son of the soil, Franz Joseph Haydn. It appropriately appears on the CD booklet because Volume 14 completes the Haydn quartet series from the Auryn Quartet. It’s a series that has garnered much critical praise for both performances and sound.
Appropriately, the last entry includes the final three quartets that Haydn wrote, the last (Op. 103) fragmentary because advanced age left Haydn without the strength to attempt the challenges of the sonata-form outer movements. The two quartets of Op. 77 are all that Haydn completed of a projected six quartets commissioned by Prince Franz Lobkowitz, to whom Beethoven would dedicate his Op. 18 Quartets, as well as several symphonies. In fact, it’s sometimes postulated that Haydn abandoned the quartets for Prince Lobkowitz because he couldn’t match the groundbreaking music of Beethoven’s Op. 18. The Op. 103 Quartet torso of 1802 suggests this was not the case, that infirmity alone put a stop to the project.
Indeed, the Op. 77 Quartets are anything but the work of a composer ready to throw in the towel. Op. 77 No. 1 especially has an energy and daring matching that of any of Beethoven’s Op. 18, at least as far as this listener is concerned. The third movement Menuet is a minuet in name only. It’s actually a full-fledged scherzo that seems, as some commentators have said, to evoke a short excursion in a fast conveyance—shades of John Adams. This is invigorating music without any of the hoar frost of old age about it. True also of the Dionysiac finale, which whips itself up into more of a froth than the other Presto that has just preceded it.
As is true of his later quartets, the slow movements of both works have a profundity that Haydn probably acquired through his acquaintance with Mozart’s late quartets, including the six that Mozart dedicated to the older master. Both movements have the sort of serene beauty that mark the best of the London Symphonies’ slow movements, such as that of No. 102 in B-flat.
Included as a sort of appendix is Op. 42, the only quartet that Haydn didn’t write as part of a series. Like Mozart’s K. 499, it was composed for their mutual friend, the Viennese music publisher Franz Hoffmeister. It’s thought that these two quartets were written as part of a projected series intended for amateur players. Certainly, Haydn’s work has few of the expected technical challenges and includes some near-didactic contrapuntal writing in the finale that seems to confirm this idea. It’s a charming quartet in any event and not really inferior to the Op. 33 Quartets written around the same time.
This last entry in the Auryn Quartet’s Haydn series is on the same high level as earlier ones, though for some reason I’m more aware here than previously of the highly reverberant acoustic of Kirche Honrath. On my system at least, this translates to something of a glare on the violins, a shade less than optimal presence for the viola and cello. In other words, the Tacet engineers seem less successful in turning the church’s deficits into advantages. The performances are fortunately very fine, as in the past. Rubato and dynamic contrast are subtly and sensitively handled to create music that truly lives and breaths. Only in that fiery, Dionysiac finale of Op. 77 No. 1 did I feel the players could have thrown themselves into the music more; the best performances zip along with abandon and create a kind of Gypsy dynamo in the codetta which rounds off the exposition. That didn’t happen here. In fact, I think a more robust approach throughout this quartet would have pointed up its real progressiveness, but of its kinder-gentler sort, the Auryn’s interpretation is beyond reproach.
Altogether, I’m just about as pleased with this recording as with the others I’ve sampled: Op. 2, Op. 20, Op. 33, and Op. 66. The Haydn series is an achievement that the Auryn Quartet and Tacet can be very proud of, including the final installment.
— Lee Passarella
Haydn Quartets, spanning two decades