All the requirements of ‘period’ performance are here: The London Haydn Quartet uses gut-strung instruments and plays at lower pitch as used in the late-eighteenth century. There is a keen sense of structure, for example: observation of all repeats including both sections of sonata movements and the use of long grace-notes rather than short ones (appoggiaturas rather than acciaccaturas). This is backed up by the use of Longman & Broderip’s scores of 1789. There is much expressiveness in these interpretations; in many of the works, the lead violin is treated in a particularly impressive way and Catherine Manson plays the relevant passages with freedom yet her lyrical shaping of phrases does not impede the music’s flow.
No.2, in C, is the first-written of the Opus 54 group and is so described in Richard Wigmore’s well-detailed booklet note. It has an extravagant role for the first violin in the brief but soulful Adagio. Unusually this movement leads directly into the Minuet, played here gently as if to continue the thoughtful mood. In both movements the tempo is identical to that used by the Aeolian Quartet in its complete set of Haydn’s Quartets where in this case they give a stronger, more rustic Minuet. The Finale’s three tempo markings give an opportunity for the LHQ players to phrase with great expression.
The form of Opus 54/1 is more conventional but it is worth noting that the reliable modern Faber score describes the slow movement as Allegretto whereas Longman & Broderip requires Andante o più tosto Allegretto. Both here and in the opening Vivace assai Catherine Manson is gentle with forte and sforzando markings.
On hearing Opus 54/3 I began to be persuaded that the London Haydn Quartet’s combination of elegance and expressiveness was advantageous in these contemplative works. There is airiness about the opening Allegretto and in the Largo Manson again leads in cantabile style, which is entirely apt. There is a legato element to the Minuet but this approach works because it is based on respect for underlying dance rhythm.
With the exception of Haydn’s final three String Quartets (the two of Opus 77 and the unfinished Opus 103), and his set of arrangements of Seven Last Words, to which the publishers gave separate identification, Haydn had his String Quartets published in groups of six, and despite their description Opuses 54 & 55 are also very much a single set – indeed they were sent to London as such.
Opus 55/1 also presents a lyrical vein and in the opening movement the players’ approach is as poetic as ever. It could be that the tendency to feature first violin in these works has something to do with Haydn’s connection with Johann Tost – leader of the second violins in Haydn’s orchestra at Eszterháza who also assisted the composer in placing these works with a publisher. This A-major piece is approached with refinement and the opening Allegretto has much smooth phrasing – a great contrast with the bucolic weight of the Aeolian members or the lighter but more driving approach of the Endellion players. Here too is a surprisingly relaxed Minuet but, as always in such movements, while phrasal flexibility is much in evidence, the pulse is always constant.
Opus 55/2 is probably the most-performed of this set – maybe because of the legend that Haydn, when shaving, complained of the bluntness of his razor saying: "I would give my best quartet for a good razor" and he was working on this composition at the time. It is the only one of this collection to begin with a slow movement, an elaborate set of Variations with demanding passages for both leader and cellist. The following Allegro with its extravagantly lengthy pauses is made very dramatic and is enhanced by the precision of the players’ timing.
The opening of the E-flat String Quartet threatens at first to be in the minor key – indeed this is a dark movement and the soft-toned gut-strings are able to stress the music’s seriousness. Strange that the marking is Vivace assai, but the element of ‘vivacity’ is here created not by speed but by tension. The Adagio that follows becomes a sort of peaceful resolution, and gives Michael Gurevich much opportunity to shine. There is lightly rhythmic thrust to the Minuet; and rapidity in the complex finale is very appropriate
Precise detail in this delightful final movement underlines the recording’s admirable clarity – hall resonance is sufficient to enhance instruments without ever clouding detail. I detected an echo during a silence that might properly have been eliminated but then I was listening intently because I was enjoying the quality of the sound so much. This is a recording notably pleasing to the ear.