Haydn’s Opus 76/1 dates from 1797 and was his first String Quartet since ‘Der Reiter’ (The Horseman) created five years earlier during his London visit. The sunny opening Allegro con spirito proved an ideal vehicle to display the Castalian Quartet’s vivid approach to Haydn’s swifter movements. Moving eagerly forward the music was bright and crisply defined; the warm, unified tone ensured that there was never any hint of coarseness in the strongly stressed forte passages. Fullness of sound and delicacy in the placing of those mysterious isolated violin notes made the Adagio sostenuto a thing of beauty, so it was already obvious that the Castalian Quartet was much in sympathy with Haydn’s style – therefore the interpretation of the third movement came as a shock. It’s a Minuet but unusually Haydn gives a Presto tempo indication. The necessary requirement is to choose a speed that allows the Trio to display its dance-like nature, but this reading was bizarre – a wildly fast Minuet was followed by a startling collapse and the Trio crawled unsteadily along, adagio. Misunderstanding the movement’s form was compounded when following the Trio just the first repeat of the Minuet was made but not the second. The Finale was played with dashing vigour and in contrast to the heavy-handed interference with the Minuet there were delightful touches and the slowing for the jocular pizzicato passage before the coda subtly underlined Haydn’s wit.
The ‘Fifth’ Quartet tended to swiftness throughout, very effective, each theme carefully shaped, expressive touches not interrupting momentum; interestingly the second subject was taken a little faster on the repeat. Springing rhythm was a feature of the pizzicato-laden Andante o più tosto allegretto – a precise instruction, carefully obeyed. Then came the Minuet, a dark, forceful piece. In the event it was ideal: swift and light, sweeping firmly through the dramatic Trio. The Finale was equally convincing. I particularly liked the way Sini Simonen played about with the stray final note of the first theme – sometimes throwing it away and once making an exaggerated upward swoop to it.
The Castalian musicians’ understanding of the ‘Emperor’ was supreme. There was grandeur in the Allegro and the extensive second repeat was taken – absolutely vital because Haydn increases the tempo for the coda only on its final repetition, a most original effect. In the second movement, rarely have I found the variations on the Emperor’s theme so beautiful and deeply moving as in this devoted performance; the players gave themselves entirely to it and the long pause before the next movement indicated something special had happened. The Minuet was treated with a light touch in an unhurried manner, flowing calmly into the more serious Trio. This was perfect in context and ended with an appropriately swift Presto that underplayed the shadowy element and stressed the drama: this was a truly great performance.