Sunday, September 15, 2019

A Wide Span of Haydn Quartets from NEQ

Yesterday afternoon in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ) presented the opening of the San Francisco stage of their thirteenth season of four concerts. The two violinists, Kati Kyme and Lisa Weiss, share leadership of this ensemble. Yesterday afternoon Weiss played first violin in the two quartets that preceded the intermission, and Kyme took over the lead for the remaining two. Anthony Martin was the violist, and William Skeen played cello.

NEQ was formed in June of 2007 with the objective of performing and recording historically-informed performances of the complete string quartets of Joseph Haydn. They are now in the process of revisiting that cycle, and the title of yesterday’s program was A Haydn Bouquet. With the performance of the four Haydn quartets on that program, the group has now accounted for 51 of the 68 quartets in their second cycle.

In reviewing my own material, I discovered that yesterday’s concert was originally announced with a lengthier, but more informative, title: A Haydn Bouquet — Four Quartets from Two Decades of Genius. Rather than taking a lock-step march through the numerical ordering of Anthony van Hoboken’s Haydn catalogue, NEQ organized their first cycle around topical themes that related different quartets from different periods in Haydn’s career. This full title reflects the same strategy applying to the second cycle.

The decades cited in the title are the first and last of the ten-year periods that Haydn spent as Kapellmeister for the Esterházy family. The latter decade was represented by the first and last quartets on the program, while the two early quartets flanked the intermission. In spite of this temporal diversity, it was delightful to recognize that Haydn could be just as inventive (often playfully so) early in his tenure as he was a quarter century later.

Thus, the earliest of the quartets, Hoboken III/23 in B-flat major (the fifth of the Opus 9 publication of quartets), begins with a set of four variations on a theme that seems almost satirically naive. The third movement, on the other hand, is a Largo cantabile that is positivity heavenly in its serene rhetoric. This quartet was also one of three on the program to conclude with a Presto movement that finishes by fading off into quietude, a cloying rhetorical trope that I recently cited in the tango performances by Tangonero in their Old First Concerts performance at the beginning of this month.

The quartet that did not conclude in this manner was the final selection on the program, Hoboken III/47 in F-sharp minor, the only quartet written in that unconventional key. This quartet was the fourth in the 1787 Opus 50 collection known as the “Prussian” quartets. The date also suggests that this was probably a quartet that Haydn himself played on a visit to Vienna that gave him the opportunity to play with violinist Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (who played first violin to Haydn’s second), violist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and cellist Johann Baptist Wanhal. Mozart probably had a good laugh when Haydn shifted the key signature from F-sharp minor to F-sharp major (described in the Program Notes prepared by Martin as “an alarming forest of hashtags”). This quartet concludes with a fugue, and one can easily imagine the gusto that Haydn and his three colleagues put into playing it during their gathering.

F-sharp minor to F-sharp major in Haydn’s Hoboken III/47 (edited by Wilhelm Altmann for Ernst Eulenburg publication, from IMSLP, public domain)

Taken as a whole, yesterday afternoon was particularly engaging for the breadth of styles and rhetorical stances that emerged from the pen of this one composer. Yes, there are definitely ways in which one can appreciate subtleties and sophistication in the “later works.” Nevertheless, there was clearly no shortage of imagination and invention in the earlier offerings, which is why just about any experience of listening to Haydn is a simulating one, as long as the execution is as well-played as groups like NEQ can offer.

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