Lindsay Quartet Haydn

28 May 2004

String Quartet in E flat, Op.20/1
String Quartet in C, Op.20/2
String Quartet in G minor, Op.20/3
String Quartet in D, Op.20/4

29 May 2004

String Quartet in F minor, Op.20/5
String Quartet in A, Op.20/6
String Quartet in B minor, Op.33/1
String Quartet in E flat, Op.33/2 (The Joke)

30 May 2004

String Quartet in C, Op.33/3 (The Bird)
String Quartet in B flat, Op.33/4
String Quartet in G, Op.33/5
String Quartet in D, Op.33/6

The Lindsays
[Peter Cropper & Ronald Birks (violins); Robin Ireland (viola) & Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello)]

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 30 May, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

For the Lindsays, the hall was packed – as always. They enjoy high critical esteem and public affection, much as the Amadeus Quartet used to. Over several years, they have been championing Haydn. All praise! This year, preparing for wind-up in 2005, they devote three weekends to him.

In my youth, Haydn’s string quartets were regarded as pleasing but trivial – as works for solo violin, three other instruments dancing inconsequential attendance. Nowadays, we know that Haydn’s genial and often-serene simplicity is acute, innovative and emotionally varied. He is, in this sense, a musician’s composer – even if it took musicians a couple of centuries to discover that this was so.

True, much of Haydn’s quartet writing does, indeed, give the first-violin pride of place. Yet, Haydn’s tonal ear for the impact of the other instruments is acute. In Opuses 20 and 33, the second violin, viola and cello have to participate vigorously and affectingly. Three of the twelve quartets heard this weekend end with a fugue. Other final movements engaged all the players in gypsy high-jinks, a quasi-Siciliano and a rondo incorporating variations.

The Lindsays, it is clear, have spent years paying careful attention to Haydn’s scores. Last year, introducing the Op.76 quartets at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Peter Cropper described Haydn’s sense of colour as “unsurpassed” and Bernard Gregor-Smith wrote: “We spend more time working on Haydn than on any other composer.”

Overall, at the Wigmore, the playing was vigorous, impassioned, sensitive and fleet. The ensemble playing was usually impressive, dialogues between instruments no less so. Attention to detail shone out – and the musicians played the slow movements exquisitely. Themes changed character subtly as they passed from one performer to another and keys changed like spotlight filters that shifted from red to orange to yellow to green.

However, in the programme notes to last year’s Op.76, Peter Cropper made a curious, telling comment. He declared that “period instrument” performance had made the group “slightly more conscious about not playing Haydn like Tchaikovsky.”

His joke – if such it were – set alarm bells ringing rather than inspiring peals of laughter. Why should a world-renowned string quartet contemplate – flippantly or seriously – the notion that they might play Haydn in the manner of Tchaikovsky? The appalling truth is that Peter Cropper had a point. The Lindsays’ urgent, observant, committed music-making seemed to articulate less a single, shrewd, eclectic master-composer than several colleagues popping in and out from different eras – invoked, I suspect, according to Peter Cropper’s disarming caprice.

In the first place, I was dismayed that this weekend’s performances jettisoned all trace of the 18th-century idiom through a lack of poise, balance and elegance of phrasing. There was no hint of classical musical architecture – or of Haydn’s dry, wry. (In contrast, the Emerson Quartet – just few weeks ago in the Wigmore Hall – played Bach’s Art of Fugue with restrained romanticism, yet, so wisely, grounded its interpretation firmly in Bach’s contrapuntal idiom.)

Furthermore, Tchaikovsky (as a composer of quartets) is a curious model, whether to adopt or reject. In the slow movements especially, the Lindsays – rapt in the beauty of its music-making – sought a kind of musical Technicolor. Time and again, Peter Cropper lavished hushed, restrained and loving vibrato on unpretentious, bare noble themes. He seemed to be straining – inappropriately – for a lush ‘big tune’. In contrast, Bernard Gregor-Smith’s rock-like cello-playing presented true simplicity. (He reminds me of the great Antonin Kohout, cellist of the Smetana Quartet.)

In seeking, legitimately, to blazon Haydn as one of the great innovators, the Lindsays cut him off from his roots. In the slow movements, they romanticised him unduly; in the faster movements, the musicians displayed a misplaced modernism

When rustic jollity stamped in, Peter Cropper’s feet took on a life of their own, emitting earthy thumps while his violin tugged him towards the ether. As a whole, the quartet treated obbligatos as inconsequential and could be hectic, not always quite together. Too often, the team seemed to be sprinting for a train: ‘Presto! We must dash! No time to play anything properly!’

Addressing the audience to illustrate the difference between fortissimo and ff, Peter Cropper played a measure of Haydn in a style more suited to Bartók. Indeed, the vigorous and abrasive harshness of Bartók often came to mind. I have no time for things ‘effete’ and ‘pretty’, either – but this was nonsense, rejecting Haydn’s soundworld entirely.

However, the stalwart lady to my right was in no doubt. “Sublime!” she pronounced magisterially. “Sublime!”

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