HAYDN Complete String Quartets. Kodaly Quartet (Naxos) – INKPOT

Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

Complete String Quartets Kodály Quartet

NAXOS 8.502301 23 discs – budget-price

Individual discs available separately.Click here for more information.

The Austrian composer Dittersdorf and Haydn were friends as young men. One night while roaming the streets they stopped outside a common beer hall in which the musicians, half drunk and half asleep, were fiddling away miserably at a Haydn minuet …

Entering the taproom, Haydn sat down beside the leader and asked casually, “Whose minuet?” The man snapped, “Haydn’s.” Haydn moved in front of him and, feigning anger, declared: “That’s a stinking minuet.”

“Says who?” demanded the fiddler, jumping out of his seat with rage. The other musicians rallied round him and were poised to smash their instruments over Haydn’s head but Dittersdorf, a big fellow, shielded Haydn with his arm and pushed him out of the door.

– From The Book of Musical Anecdotes

Much like the anecdote above, the string quartets of Haydn (right) have a tendency to sometimes play jokes on their listeners, at times a little coarsely, at others with subtlety. They are extremely personable works, engaging us in conversations, confessing sadness and joy, sharing stories and secrets. For those who have tentatively explored Haydn’s output through some of the symphonies, the quartets are an excellent way to further expand their knowledge and whet their enthusiasm. And with Haydn’s continual innovation, there is hardly a dull moment in the lot.

The performances on these discs match the good nature of the music. The Kodály Quartet plays with a full, slightly romantic tone and a relaxed manner. There is nothing dull about these performances, but there is a gentility that benefits the quartets. The Kodály recorded these works over a 10-year period, taking the time to grow into each quartet, and the preparation shows, as well as a deep empathy for Haydn’s music and an unbridled joy in performing it.

The 23 discs on this set are also available separately, which means you can start with one or two discs and take your time in purchasing the rest. If you are like me, however, and are curious enough that you will eventually peruse the entire canon, I would suggest getting the complete set and listening to each disc at your leisure. With these performances, and at Naxos’ price, you will not find a better deal on the market.

Some highlights:

Opus 1 Nos. 1-4: Even though these quartets were written at the beginning of Haydn’s career, there is nothing amateurish or superfluous about them. These are charming works, written in five movements with two minuets, and are appealing in their own right. They are also simple works – the sophistication for which Haydn would become noted would come later – but remain a pleasant way to sample the seeds from which his career flourished.

Opus 30 Nos. 1, 2 & 5; Nos. 3, 4 & 6: These quartets, subtitled “The Russian” for their performance in Vienna in the presence of the Russian Grand Duke Paul (later Tsar Paul II) and his wife, are irresistible in their melodic appeal. Three of these quartets have nicknames. The fifth quartet in the set, which opens the first disc, is titled “How do you do?” because of the four-note motif that opens the work. The second quartet, “The Joke,” does so in the finale by a change of speeds, a series of silences, and a quiet ending. The third quartet, which opens the second disc, is known as “The Bird” from the grace notes that embellish its principal theme, which make it sound as though a flock of good-natured birds has come to roost around us, and the bird song-like trills in the second movement.

Opus 50 Nos. 1-3; Nos. 4-6: Haydn wrote these quartets, subtitled “The Prussian” and dedicated to King Frederick William of Prussia, two years after Mozart had written his six “Haydn” quartets. He returns the homage by supplying a more Mozartian sound world than in his earlier quartets, with a play of light and shade, smiling grace and subtle tragedy fully worthy of the younger composer. Though more subdued than in some of his other quartets, these works show Haydn at his most sophisticated, and prove a fascinating commentary from one composer to another.

Opus 51 “The Seven Last Words of Christ”; Opus 103: Originally written to fulfill a commission by a canon of Cadiz, Haydn arranged this music for orchestra, chorus and string quartet. Written in an introduction, seven slow movements and a finale, the Seven Last Words tested Haydn’s creativity in a novel way – how to keep the ideas fresh and interesting with a minimum change in tempo over a protracted time period – and the composer succeeded admirably. The Kodaly give this work an equally crisp reading, remaining open to every nuance of expression and never letting things become perfunctory; they continually find details that keep us paying attention.

Accompanying this work are two movements that were published as Haydn’s final quartet, in which he takes on some of the stylistic challenges posed by the music of his onetime pupil Beethoven. Though not Haydn at his best, it shows that he was open to new ideas at the end of his life, even if he did not have the strength to fully follow them.

Opus 76 Nos. 1-3: From the opening measures, the first quartet of this series promises a good time to be had by all with its rustic dance-like opening theme, and cheerfully keeps its word. This is perhaps some Haydn’s most joyful music, and its infectiousness reaches the listener in a quantum leap. If this piece does not put a smile on your face, check your pulse to make sure your heart is still beating. The second quartet, subtitled “Fifths” from the widely spaced intervals played by the first violin at the opening bars, is a more somber work but no less appealing. The third quartet, the “Emperor,” quotes in the second movement Haydn’s Emperor’s Hymn, which he wrote after hearing the anthem “God Save the King” during one of his visits to England.

Bibliography: Lebrecht, Norman, The Book of Musical Anecdotes (New York: The Free Press, 1985), 45, no. 96.

JONATHAN YUNGKANS‘ version of a house painting party was nine hours with a paint roller in his hand and the Kodaly Quartet serenading him with Haydn – not a dull moment.

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