Haydn: String Quartets, Opp. 71 & 74 (CD review)

The London Haydn Quartet. Hyperion CDA68230 (2-disc set)

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
Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) didn't invent the symphony or the string quartet, but he refined and popularized the genres. Not only did he write 106 symphonies, earning him the nickname "Father of the Symphony," he wrote some 70 string quartets, making it fair to call him the "Father of the Quartet" as well.

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.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa