The Eybler Quartet’s first foray—via CD—into the incredible world of Haydn’s string quartets is a promising start to the richly rewarding repertoire. The twenty-four movements of Op. 33 look back (the cool, bare fifths during the opening of No. 2’s “Largo sostenuto” conjures up some equally quiet Gregorian Chant; violist Patrick Jordan and cellist Margaret Gay beautifully meld into one voice that entrances the ear) and forward (the “Andante” of No. 6 has much in common with Mozart’s “Lacrymosa” from his final work a decade hence; violinist Aisslinn Nosky renders the opening melody with a compelling cantabile if perhaps a touch too generous in the always subjective use of portamenti) while pushing the compositional bar higher than ever (employing two harmonic approaches to reach D minor in the exposition then the recapitulation of No. 6’s “Allegro moderato”—the longest movement of all—must have surprised those used to “text book” structure; as she would throughout the set, violinist Julia Wedman rendered the key inner voices with the twin tenets of clarity and discretion), revealing just what chamber music’s most homogenous ensemble can do.
As good as this ensemble is, with the notable exception of No. 2—tellingly, “Allegro moderato”—there is a tendency to rush through the opening movements rather than assuredly let them “sit” and collectively generate secure, anchored results. Admittedly, these few blemishes can be measured in microseconds, but having been spoiled learning these works with Quartetto Italiano, I continue to search the globe for their natural successor (cross-references below).
Haydn himself puts on the tempo brakes in the first frame of “The Joke” (No. 2) and the players produce some of the finest playing—crystal clear ensemble; everything centred—of the two-disc set. The harmonic “gags” are well-understood, frequently preceded by the component of silence. Those of us eagerly awaiting the sudden shifts will savour the expert timing but too frequently grimace when the pre-launch fingerboard “tests” give away the punch line. Perhaps a different sort of microphone strategy might be considered for the next volume.
All six “dance movements” clearly demonstrate Haydn’s ever-present creativity. Setting the Menuet aside, the tempo generally moves up several notches as the fleeting Scherzi (replete with extra helpings of repeats on the Da Capos—a feast on its own for inquisitive musicologists) provide relief and contrast to their lengthier cousins. Gay leads the engaging pack with her stellar lines in the "Trio" of No. 6; in just a single page of score, the “Scherzo” of No. 3 becomes a marvel of homogeneity—intriguingly paving the way for the “Emperor” Quartet to come 16 years later.
A final highlight is the absolutely exemplary “Andante” from No. 1. The ideal tempo allows the music to evolve; the sense of unity from all four players permeates every measure even as the deliciously understated harmonic excursions—with nary a whiff of affectation (so often, playing the notes just as they are comes closer to the Classical spirit far more than slipping unwanted push/pull into the mix)—have their intended effect.
Here’s hoping the resources can be found to continue the Eybler Quartet’s exploration of “Papa’s” quartets both in live and recorded performances. JWR