Let me begin with a story, and I apologize that I've told it before. If you recognize it, you may safely skip to the third paragraph.
OK, I've always loved album covers. Especially classical covers that put me in a mind of the recorded music. A good illustration of this is a Philips album I bought many years ago on LP. It was the augmented Beaux Arts Trio doing Schubert's "Trout" Quintet. The bucolic cover painting showed an old mill and waterwheel on a stream in the country. It was lovely, and I enjoyed gazing at it while listening to Schubert's music. But when Philips issued the recording on CD some years later, they changed covers, giving it a mundane, almost nondescript booklet picture. Likewise happened when Pentatone released it on SACD. So what I did was go on-line and find a picture of the original LP cover, which I saved, resized, sharpened, and color corrected. Printed out on glossy photo paper, it looks beautiful, and slipped in front of the SACD booklet, I can again enjoy the pleasures of a day in the country while listening to the music.
Of course, it takes more than a pretty cover to sell me on a record album. Certainly, the music counts for a lot, the musicians, their performance, and the sound of the recording. All of which this Haydn album has going for it. The performers, the London Haydn Quartet, are superb. Their playing of the string quartets is above reproach. The Hyperion sound is about as good as it gets. And the cover painting, "The Naval Dockyard at Depford" by Samuel Scott (c1702-1772), puts one in mind of Haydn's environs at the time he wrote the music and, yes, contributes to my enjoyment of it.
The players, as I say, are the London Haydn Quartet, comprised of Catherine Manson, violin; Michael Gurevich, violin; John Crockatt, viola; and Jonathan Manson, cello. Founded in 2000, the players perform on period instruments, and their release of the present two-disc album is a part of their complete Haydn quartet recordings for the Hyperion label.
The material embraces the Opuses 71 and 74 string quartets, the so-called Apponyi quartets because Haydn publicly dedicated them to Count Anton Georg Apponyi (for a price). They are sometimes called the "London" quartets, too, owing to Haydn's having composed them for London premieres. Each opus contains three quartets of about twenty-five minutes each. Haydn wrote them in 1793, and in addition to being referred to as Op. 71, Nos. 1-3 and Op. 74, Nos. 1-3, they are also simply numbered Nos. 54-59.
|London Haydn Quartet|
Anyway, the quartets themselves are a delight, as we would expect from a genius like Haydn in his late middle period. So, what about the playing? It's obviously a historically informed performance, coming at us on period instruments. However, it is not one of those hell-bent-for-leather affairs that leave our sensibilities in the dust. The interpretations are completely charming, carefully judged, well paced, and judiciously measured. Nothing is too fast or too slow; there are no exaggerated contrasts or prolonged pauses. The fast movements are temperate and mostly joyous rather than helter-skelter. The slow movements are lovely, reflective, contemplative, without ever dragging. This is music-making to be appreciated and savored rather than admired solely for its virtuosity.
And the playing is immaculate and, yes, virtuosic.
I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this album. Some two-and-a-half hours of music went by before I knew it, and I enjoyed every minute. Each succeeding quartet seems better than the last, culminating in perhaps my favorite, Op. 74, No. 3.
As an aside, I also enjoyed a booklet note informing us that Haydn included a loud introductory gesture at the beginning of each quartet, intended to let the audience know the music was starting and to quiet down. It appears people never change.
Producer and engineer Philip Hobbs and editor Julia Thomas made the recording at Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, England in October 2018. How good is the recording? It's the proverbially reach-out-and-touch-it good. Clean. Clear. Close but not objectionably so. Smooth. Radiantly atmospheric, with lifelike imaging and a realistic separation of instruments. It's about as good as a chamber ensemble can sound without their being live in your living room.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: