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The MHS Review 397 VOL. 12, NO. 1 • 1988

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William Zagorski


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The Haydn quartets are special works. Unlike most of his 104 splendid sym­phonies (107 by a more modern count), Haydn's string quartets were not written exclusively for his patron, Prince Nikolaus the Magnificent; they were published and disseminated by Haydn for the unofficial purpose of spreading his fame. Haydn, with his customary sagacity, knew that if he could garner a reputation beyond the walls of Eszterhaza, he would hold a powerful bargaining chip in dealings with his princely patron.

The strategy worked. Nikolaus, a man of musical sensitivity with a good eye for quality, exulted in the fact that his Kapellmeister Haydn had become a very prestigious commodity. He also sensed that if he were to hold onto his prize, Haydn would have to be treated somewhat bet­ter than the liveried servant which, technically, he was.

Haydn regarded his quartets (some 83 by traditional count) as special in other ways. The medium itself demanded a pure distillation of musical language. It was con­noisseur music--music for musicians. Feel­ing less constrained by the dictates of "ac­ceptable" fashion, he could be more bold, innovative, incomprehensible, and occa­sionally more offensive than usual.

The op. 54 Quartets were composed in 1789 when Haydn was 57 and at the height of his powers. He dedicated them to Johann Tost, the principal second violin of the Esterhazy orchestra. Mr. Tost must have been an accomplished violinist, because his namesake quartets contain first violin parts of uncommon difficulty.

The one minor quibble I have with this release is that the quartets are presented out of order. In their proper sequence, they have a logical progression. Number 1 in G serves as an introduction. Its terse and brilliant first movement, with the first violin routinely soaring to stratospheric heights, sets the virtuoso tone of the whole opus. The second movement opens with a straightforward. rather predictable classical theme. In its brief development, however. something magical happens. Wandering through unexpected keys and harmonizations, it becomes imbued with a decidedly romantic tint. Suddenly we are in the realm of Schubert--late Schubert. Both the Minuet and rondo Finale next in­troduce a folkish element, which, like all that has gone before, seems both surpris­ing and appropriate at the same time.

The second quartet in C is the boldest of the lot. Its Adagio movement is Hungarian Zigeuner-Musik. Not gypsylike, but the real article. It could have been com­posed by Liszt, Brahms, or the young Bartok. Within eight bars, Haydn transcends time and place so absolutely that you 'll think you've stumbled into a time warp. The unusual Finale of this quartet is also surprising. It's an intensely rational 18th-century adagio, with a brief presto, followed by a reprise. Beethoven used the same gambit in his op. 18, no. 6 Finale some ten years later.

The third quartet in E major amalgamates all the disparate elements of the first two quartets and from them forges a piece of "art" music of the highest order. Rarely have folk and art music been so har­moniously integrated. This most rational and lyrical quartet calmly deposits us back into the 18th century from whence we came (a fitting close to an opus where we can only expect the unexpected).

Music was not merely a pleasant artifact to Haydn; it was a dynamic means of emo­tional expression. The Lindsay Quartet has the technique to realize Haydn's fireworks, and the musical perspicacity to com­municate the stuff that lies between the notes. If you don't know Haydn and his quartets, get this release; it wi!l be a revela­tion. If you know these quartets, get it for the same reason.

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