This was the final concert in Wigmore Hall’s Haydn String Quartet Series in which a considerable number of these compositions have been given by various performers, and many reviewed here on Classical Source (search “Haydn String Quartets Wigmore Hall Classical Source”). Differences of approach by distinguished ensembles have helped to illuminate the essence of these masterpieces. The Castalian String Quartet previously performed the first three of Opus 76 – memorable for a superb interpretation of the ‘Emperor’ Quartet – and its completion of the set was of a similar high standard and full of insight.
A characteristic of the players’ sound is one of elegance, retained even when the music becomes fast and furious, and there is many a passage like that in Opus 76. No.1 opens in utmost calm however and there was rare beauty as Sini Simonen climbed from quietness and began to illuminate the day, the subtitle ‘Sunrise’ entirely justified and the bright forte outburst was all the more effective for being kept at the same measured tempo. In the Adagio, gentleness of tone expressed the serious nature of the music ideally and the modesty with which vibrato is used made the serenity all the more effective. The Minuet is marked Allegro but it was not hurried (I have a feeling that nowadays performers are moving away from hasty approaches to such movements) and this made the onward drive of the Finale all the more effective.
In No.5 Haydn uses a fast ending to an opening movement (an effect anticipated in the reading of the previous work). This Allegretto, taken swiftly, has a much decorated main theme leading to an Allegro which surges excitingly forward. The following Largo cantabile was performed with grace and the Allegro Minuet was perfectly judged, allowing the delightful cello-led Trio to sound suitably grandfatherly in response. When Haydn writes Presto he means it and the Castalian members whipped the Finale along at great pace yet with absolute accuracy.
No.6 also begins with an Allegretto in variation form but this time the surprise at its close is a fugal Allegro. After performing the slow movement (’Fantasia’) I appreciated the players not lowering their instruments for a long period; we needed time to reflect after such a gracious rendering. Presto is the requirement for the Minuet but this was controlled so that the very different middle section was kept in proportion, this is not a Trio but an Alternativo – a term used in Baroque times. As for the final Allegro spirituoso, I have never heard it taken so spectacularly fast yet it was absolutely precise and the golden tone was not compromised.
The high spirited atmosphere was retained in the encore – the Finale of Opus 76/1. As in their complete performance in April (link below), the players indulged a whim, slowing greatly for the quaint pizzicato passage that comes just before the end – delightful, and ideal to finish in great good humour.