JWR Articles: CD - Haydn: Six Quartets, Op. 20 (Featured composer: Franz Joseph Haydn) - June 26, 2011 id="543337086">

Haydn: Six Quartets, Op. 20

3.5 3.5
130 min.

Just what, exactly, did Haydn mean?

One of the greatest challenges facing interpreters of the Classical era is arriving at an “edition” of the music in question that is faithful to the composer and at one with their own musical tastes and convictions. Generally speaking, earlier periods leave the editorial door wide open from instrumentation to ornamentation, selection (order) of movements et cetera. With Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven a variety of sources must be compared to arrive at convincing conclusions. As printing techniques improved, the reliability of the translation from manuscript to mass distribution scores and parts has mightily improved composers’ chances of having their thoughts and ideas brought to even more convincing life. Where original copies (or facsimiles) exist, the performer can make up his/her own mind rather than relying on scholarly editions to relieve them of that vital responsibility.

Putting myself through this artistic process with Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D Major, further reinforced my scepticism of relying solely upon someone else’s conclusions. All manner of slurs, instrumentation, and rests had to be reconsidered after peering at the music in Haydn’s hand. The result being a singular rendition that hoped to be as close as possible to the master’s intentions.

For these astonishing works from Haydn, the Daedalus Quartet have most certainly put their own stamp on the performances, yet there is more often a feeling of decision-by-gut-reaction than a thoroughly mapped out plan both to the notes themselves and the dynamic plane upon which they will be presented. With just a bit more contemplation of the details, future recordings could well approach a very high degree of excellence. Already, the collective ability to find the right tempi is superb.

Having violinists Min-Young Kim (2,3,5) alternate with Kyu-Young Kim (1,4,6) in the lead role also gives this set a fascinating variety of colours and approaches. Both technically gifted, the former truly comes into her own with a wonderfully dark Allegro moderato (No. 5) yet fades a tad too far into the background when it’s the latter’s moment in the sun (quite literally, it feels, in the Adagio cantabile from No. 6 where the divine movement achieves an unforgettable sense of mystery as Haydn’s harmonic excursions dazzle the ear and enchant the soul—unfortunately, that special mood wasn’t kindled in the working out of the first movement from No. 2). Here—and elsewhere—violist Jessica Thompson aptly demonstrates her quartet-leading ability to provide just the right amount of weight to crucial half-step tones: the composer seldom felt the need to call attention to this vital component with a tenuto mark—those who fully appreciate the whole rather than just the strands instinctively know when to reinforce the musical tension as surely as Haydn’s genius created it.

Cellist Raman Ramakrishnan proved a capable anchor throughout, providing one especially memorable highlight with his glowing melodic lines and thoughtfully discreet obbligato in the Poco adagio from No. 3.

But as to the editorial details, perhaps the most problematic marking is the slur line. In its most basic use (above or below changing pitches), its removal replaces smooth legato with varying lengths of separate notes, significantly altering the texture. When joining two notes of the same pitch (frequently over barlines as is often the case in the Moderato from No. 2), the drama of rhythmic syncopation is entirely lost. Too frequently, for these ears, the choice of dropping those slurs robbed the music of both colour and verve.

Also vital to performances from this era are the dynamic indications. Far fewer than from the Romantic period until present day, the players or conductor must work out a strategy that suits the overall artistic plan. Most interesting in that regard are the three fugues. In the first of them (Fuga a 4 soggetti, No. 2), the voices were largely quiet, going about their contrapuntal business with a minimum of fuss. Just when that approach verged on lacklustre, nearly dull, the volume sluices were opened, unleashing a marvellous payoff to the purposeful understatement, yielding an excellent conclusion. The same strategy (already predictable) worked fairly well in the Finale of No. 5, but by the time Fuga a 3 soggetti (the last track of the disc, No. 6) took its cue, the ear hoped for a different method of delving/diving into the counterpoint. This time the solution was to play the entire movement sotto voce, which—although somewhat surprising—let the music slip out of sight instead of burning its way into memory.

Overall there’s much to admire and plenty of food for thought in this two-disc set. Let’s keep the discourse going knowing full well that a definitive “text” is as elusive as the indisputable version of Shakespeare’s plays. JWR

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Featured composer - Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet In E-flat Major, Op. 20, No. 1, Hob. III:31 - Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet In C Major, Op. 20, No. 2, Hob. III:32
String Quartet In G Minor, Op. 20, No. 3, Hob. III:33
String Quartet In D Major, Op. 20, No. 4, Hob. III:34
String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5, Hob. III:35
String Quartet In A Major, Op. 20, No. 6, Hob. III:36
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