Over the past 13 years the London Haydn Quartet have been surveying Haydn’s complete string quartets for Hyperion in beautifully produced sets, bound by handsome covers featuring 18th-century oil paintings of London. Each has been miracle of period performance on gut strings led by Catherine Manson, with keen attention to detail, even down to which edition they play from.
Such an approach could be dry and academic in other hands, but Manson and her colleagues, with their mastery of intonation, tempo, dynamic and sheer expressive delight in these works, avoid that trap. “No set of 18th-century string quartets is so wide-ranging in expression, or so heedless of the structural norms of the time,” writes Richard Wigmore in the liner notes for the Op. 76 double disc.
Composed in Vienna in 1796, a year after his second triumphant London tour, Haydn dedicated the set to Count Joseph Erdody, chancellor at the Hungarian court in what is now Bratislava. They include three much-loved works in the Fifths,Sunrise and the magnificent Emperor, with its famous variations on the hymn to Emperor Franz II, later appropriated by Germany for its national anthem.
Other groups may have brought a little more excitement and muscle to the opening of the Fifths, but the LHQ’s handling of the Emperor is masterly, uninhibited and powerful by turns in the outer movements, elegant in the minuet and irresistible in the variations of the Kaiserlied. Their judicious use of vibrato is no better illustrated than in the so-called Largo quartet, with its sad and beautiful second movement that gives the work its sobriquet. Manson is supported by Michael Gurevich’s impeccable second violin and the low strings of John Crockatt and Jonathan Manson’s cello, with especially tight ensemble work in the riotous rustic dance finale.
The mysterious hazy opening of the Sunrise is magical under Manson’s fingers, and perhaps the highlight of the whole album is the performance of the sixth quartet. Its Menuetto always reminds this listener of birds hopping around in hedgerows to the sound of distant church bells. I was fortunate to see the LHQ perform this piece for the Utzon Series in Sydney in 2015. It is equally entrancing on this disc.
There are so many outstanding recordings of these works and which one the listener will choose boils down to personal taste. There is strong competition in the HIP field from Alana Ibragimova’s Chiaroscuro, which recently released the first three Op. 76 works, and one reviewer was less than kind about the LHQ’s Op. 33 set, but if you want gut strings and baroque bows the English group’s soon to be completed survey comes close to the benchmark set by Christophe Coin’s Quatuor Mosaiques in the 1990s.
Haydn expressed the hope that his music might “someday, become a spring from which the careworn may draw a few moments’ rest and refreshment”. With this Op. 76 recording the LHQ give us two-and-a-half hours of pure unadulterated pleasure.
Works: String Quartets Op. 76
Performers: London Haydn Quartet
Label: Hyperion CDA68335 (2CD)