Recording of the Week Haydn's String Quartets
I’ve been enjoying listening to Haydn’s Opus 20 String Quartets this week, inspired by the forthcoming re-packaging of several of the Quatuor Mosaïques’ fantastic Haydn recordings. Haydn’s seventy or so String Quartets opened up a new era in chamber music. In the same way as he did for the symphony, he established what is generally considered the standard ‘string quartet form’, which has been used by countless composers since.
His earliest string quartets resemble more a divertimento or serenade. They typically had five movements rather than four and a much more virtuosic first violin part (the second violin, viola and cello generally simply accompanied) but from the Opus 20 set onwards (written in 1772) this changed. From then on the melody was no longer concentrated in the first violin, but given also to the other instruments. Furthermore the music became much more polyphonic with all the four instruments having much more equal rights and each part being individually written. This can be seen for example in the four-voice fugues found in the Opus 20 set. Although these quartets sound perfectly normal to the modern ear this set must have caused quite a stir at the time with many other features, such as the cello rather than the first violin taking the opening theme at the beginning of the second quartet, being virtually unheard of previously.
The Opus 20 set also coincides with Haydn’s so-called sturm und drang period, where his works became more intense, and overtly dramatic, rather than simply pretty and galant, and this stylistic change to the musical content becomes even more apparent in the Opus 33 set where the writing is more complex and the melodies develop much more organically. After that he never looked back and his quartets from then on are all masterpieces with the late Op. 76 and 77 sets written when he was in his late 60s still sounding as fresh and vigorous as when he was a young man.
Without wishing to go on too much, if you don’t already know the String Quartets of Haydn there is a real treat in store for you. There is so much very fine music here and many hours of enjoyment are guaranteed. If you want to browse a complete list of his String quartets and view available recordings, we’ve put a functional (yet rather boring looking) page on the website here. If you’re looking for some guidance then I’d particularly recommend the two Quatuor Mosaïques 5-disc box sets shown below, which are about to be re-issued, and as part of our Naïve special offer represent pretty fantastic value. They play on period instruments, but please don’t let that put you off, as the recordings are quite superb. They play with an unbelievably pure and fine tone, and a suppleness of phrasing and acute dynamic shaping which is quite irresistible.