Several of Haydn’s sets of String Quartets find him in transition from one phase to another but in the case of Opus 64 from 1790 the change is particularly abrupt, from works written essentially for private performance to those composed with public presentation in mind. We think of these six Quartets as among those intended for the rather nefarious violinist, merchant and pirate publisher Johann Tost, but by the time we get to the two great masterpieces at the end, ‘The Lark’ and the E-flat, Tost has largely moved out of the picture – although he receives the dedication – and the London violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon has swum into view. It seems that both works were performed at the Festino Rooms in Hanover Square; and rather confusingly, because it is not at all suited to making a big impression, No.1 was also heard there. Haydn seems to have composed the six works more or less in the order in which they come to us today – there have been other editions with different orders – although he probably wrote No.6 before ‘The Lark’.
The set as a whole has had a patchy career on disc. In 78rpm days, the Quatuor Pro Arte set down 3, 4 and 6 for the HMV Haydn Quartet Society – and would surely have got round to ‘The Lark’ had the war not intervened. That work had at least seven 78rpm recordings; and No.6 received an absolutely Elysian performance from the Quartetto Italiano just after the war. On mono LP, the whole set came from the Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet, and No.5 from the Smetana and Hungarian Quartets. The Smetana members surpassed themselves with their EMI stereo recording, surely the best that ‘The Lark’ has ever received; and the Hungarians also did a stereo account. The Amadeus Quartet produced a complete Opus 64 which had unforgettable moments. The first complete cycle of Haydn Quartets was that by the Aeolian Quartet, and several others have come since. The best cycle on period instruments, by the Festetics Quartet of Budapest, omits the sets before Opus 9. The Quatuor Mosaïques had done Opus 64 but only the cellist is really a period-instrument player: the other three just string their modern instruments with gut.The Doric String Quartet musicians are similar halfway-house players. They use modern fiddles but have a set of Classical bows made by Luis Emilio Rodriguez Carrington. I suddenly started hearing a lot of senza vibrato when I reached 5 and 6 – there may well be some in earlier Quartets but for reasons which will become apparent, I do not really want to listen to them again!
Quartet No.1, as I indicated, is not the sort of piece to grab the attention, although it is extremely interesting musically. In his new book A Player’s Guide to Chamber Music, Peter Jeffery points out that it is also “perhaps the most democratic quartet that Haydn ever wrote”, making it ideal for amateurs as it gives everyone something to do. In the opening Allegro moderato, Haydn gets quite carried away with a phrase from the end of the first subject and employs it for much of his development and further working-out, with the result that, as W. Dean Sutcliffe writes in his booklet note, “the remainder of the movement bears almost no relation to what we heard in the first half”. This movement is quite firmly played at the start, but one awkward transition suggests that the Doric members have not often performed the work. They are rather lazy and soggy at the beginning of the Minuet, so that we seem to be in the same mood as the first movement: fortunately they warm up as the Minuet progresses. They find a nice springy rhythm for the Allegretto scherzando – like Beethoven’s Opus 18/4, this is a Quartet without a real slow movement. The Finale is well-defined in its opening bars and goes agreeably.
With No.2, we are reminded that Tost was an excellent, vivid player, as Haydn gives him quite a lot to do. The composer did not often write a Quartet in a minor key, and here you feel B-minor straight away. It is a more characterful work than No. 1 and the players seem more interested in it. Apart from some slightly lazy articulation, the Allegro spiritoso goes well. The Adagio in B-major, with a rocking lullaby motion, is sensitively played. The Minuet is sprightly, with a lovely Trio, and the Presto Finale brings us back to the characterful Tost: the musicians seem to enjoy it and some slightly imprecise tuning can be forgiven.
No.3 has a marvellously Haydnesque false start and the initial phrase haunts the Vivace assai, which is nicely played although it could be even livelier. The Adagio also goes well, as does the Minuet with its rather bucolic Trio. The galloping Finale has strange slower interludes which are handled capably.
No.4 has a memorable start and changes of tempo and mood which are not always handled comfortably by the Doric members: the entire Allegro con brio could do with a bit more brio. Then comes a rather lazy Minuet – the Doric do not play it lazily, thank goodness – with a slower Trio. The Adagio always reminds me irresistibly of Norbert Brainin of the Amadeus and I expect Tost played it well: Alex Reddington is not in the Brainin class but he does quite nicely. The work finishes with a sprightly Finale. The great Hungarian Haydn scholar László Somfai, in his notes for the Tátrai set on Hungaroton, finds the two central movements “somewhat tired” but by the time he annotates the Festetics set, he seems to have changed his mind, mercifully.
Oh dear! With ‘The Lark’, I really part company with the Doric musicians, who seem to be at their most mannered. When the Festetics set on the Arcana label came out, I was a bit disappointed that they took a slower tempo for the Allegro moderato, with its soaring violin solos, than the players had on a previous Hungarian set. But at least they keep a firm rhythm and are firm of purpose throughout. At precisely the same slightly-too-slow tempo the Doric members are all over the place. This movement demands a great violinist like Jiří Novák of the Smetana Quartet and Redington’s wispy playing really will not do. Perhaps he and his colleagues are trying something different, but it does not work. The piece cries out for simplicity – Brainin never got it right, trying to complicate it – and the Doric approach is inconsistent. There is some senza vibrato and, all in all, it is a very mannered account of a celebrated piece. The Adagio is tidily played but a mite slow: thoughtful dynamic variations are enjoyable but tempo variations are not helpful. The Minuet is quite alert at the start but is soon finicky again, even in the Trio. The Vivace Finale is good – got on with.
No.6, written specifically for Salomon, is a wonderful work, memorable from its opening bars to its close. If it had a nickname, it would be better known, although amateurs get on well with it. The Doric adopt a rather pussyfooting tempo for the Allegro: it is reasonably well played, yet does not make its full effect. The Festetics knock forty-one seconds off the Doric’s timing, which is all to the good. The glorious Andante is better, with the first violin really taking off in the intense central section – why could Redington not play like this elsewhere? The Minuet is all right, although a meal is made of the delightful Trio; and the musicians do quite well in the Finale, with its typical Haydn joke at the end.
The set is nicely presented, with full notes for the serious listener, several trendy pictures of the players and a pleasing one of Haydn. The recordings, produced, engineered and edited by Jonathan Cooper assisted by Rosanna Fish, are pretty good. I just wish I could be a little more enthusiastic.