Haydn Op76 string quartets

What did I listen to?

Haydn String quartets Op.76, 1–3

Which recording(s)?
Chiaroscuro Quartet

Why did I choose it?

The classical period is a huge gap in my listening – I tend to dismiss it all as being too clean and pretty, and I jump from heady baroque passion straight to heady romantic passion. When I was reviewing, if I found myself unavoidably having to review Mozart instrumental music (because RNS kept programming Mozart alongside interesting things that I wanted to hear), I struggled to find things to say. But I’m finding at the moment that cool, enlightenment rationality is what I’m craving. There’s so much repertoire that it’s hard to know where to start, so when I saw praise for this new disc of Haydn strings quartets from the Chiaroscuro Quartet, that seemed as good a place as any.

What do I already know or expect?

Looking at the CD liner notes, (online here) I’ve realised It’s not all entirely new listening here – one of the barriers to my classical listening is keeping track of all the opus/catalogue numbers – and it turns out that one of the quartets in this set is the ‘Emperor’, with its lovely, understated setting of the tune that later became notorious as the German national anthem. Also, I have a dim memory of having to do exercises in writing string quartet in style of Haydn stuff for A-level, so I must have listened to some as well. But the whole collection is unfamiliar enough to me that I don’t think I’m really breaking my rules.

These are the first half of Haydn’s last collection of string quartets, so the genre and his style is now well established – indeed they overlap with the start of Beethoven’s own chamber music odyssey, so I’m expecting a mixture of mature gracefulness and Haydn’s characteristic wit and charm, from a man at the height of his popularity and power.

Impressions from the first hearing

My general impressions of Haydn’s instrumental music have been formed by just hearing bits and pieces here and there on the radio, rather than from any serious, concentrated engagement. Listening to these quartets properly, without distraction, I heard the grace and charm that I had been expecting, but what was new was that I started to appreciate and enjoy Haydn’s quirks and sublteties instead of just dismissing it as pretty background music.

There’s lots of joy in these quartets. Sometimes it’s clearly stated, such as in the opening movements of the first and third quartets, the short, sweet minuet and trio of No 1 or the second movement of No2, but there are other times when rays of happiness emerge gently out of stormier music. The third movement of No2 is quite a riot, and it would have been a strong candidate for my happiness playlist if I’d come across it sooner. There’s some outright silliness too – at the end of the first quartet, what feels like the closing cadence is interrupted by a sudden mischievous coda, and in the first movement of the fourth quartet it sounds as if a ceilidh band is trying to gatecrash a tea party.

It’s not all sunshine, although this being the eighteenth-century, nothing ever goes too far, and emotions are held in a careful, tasteful balance. There’s a sadness to the slow movement of No.1, but it’s a dignified sadness, without ostentation that offers comfort and allows space for the sunshine to break in. I already knew the understated beauty of the second movement of No3. the ‘Emperor’, and it never fails to move me. The first movement of No.2 is quite dark, dominated by a melody in falling fifths that gives the quartet its nickname ‘Fifths’ – the music keeps circling back obsessively to this motif, fretting at it, probing it, and after this the second movement feels like a breath of cooling air. These meatier movements also give a signpost to the evolution of the string quartet – we’re now well into the foothills of the mountain that Beethoven is going to climb.

I listened to these quartets on yet another weekend of Sturm und Drang in British politics. My twitter timeline was exploding in rage as the UK government collectively drove itself off a cliff, and I knew that obsessively following it all was not going to be good for my mental state, but I was also finding it hard to look away. Haydn took me gently by the hand and led me into a safe place where I could take a deep breath and a cooling draught of fresh water.

How many times did I listen? 

Quite a few times! I’ve lost count.

Any more thoughts from repeat hearings?

I think in the end I overdosed on these, and I found the rustic tunes in particular got a bit too firmly lodged in my head so that they started to annoy me, but on the other hand, the more I hear the opening movement of No.2 the more I love it – perhaps because it’s the most fiery moment of the set.

Buy stream or drop?

For the moment I think it will enough to have these bookmarked in Idagio to come back to when I need them. But having decided that I really like the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s style, and their gut string sound, I’m now exploring their two earlier recordings of the Opus 20 quartets

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