Sunday, April 15, 2018

NEQ Surveys Four Haydn Quartets

Late yesterday afternoon the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ) gave the last of the four programs they prepared for their eleventh season in San Francisco. As had been observed at the end of last month, the program consisted of four string quartets by Joseph Haydn prepared as a “bonus concert” in London after the Beethoven Quartet Society had presented the complete cycle of the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven in 1845. As is well known, Haydn had been Beethoven’s first teacher in Vienna; but the relationship between the two of them was a rocky one. One consequence is that the adventurous qualities of the Beethoven quartets tend to overshadow the many ways in which Haydn could be just as adventurous in that same medium.

Three of the Haydn quartets on yesterday’s program came from his many years of service to the Esterházy family. Indeed, his very first quartets (published as his Opus 1) were written not long after he first came into the service of Prince Paul Anton; and the Opus 64 quartets were published in the year when Prince Nikolaus died. The London program that NEQ reproduced did not go back to the very beginning but instead opened with the fourth of the Opus 9 quartets (Hoboken III/22 in D minor), which was Haydn’s first quartet in a minor key.

However, it was when the program progressed to Opus 20 that the London audience began to appreciate that Haydn could be just as boldly inventive as the “revolutionary” Beethoven. The selection was the second quartet in the set (Hoboken III/32 in C major), a remarkably Janus-faced achievement. It is one of the three quartets in the Opus 20 set that concludes with a fugue. The C major fugue deploys four subjects, the first of which has a chromatic descent that is even more eye-opening than any of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “chromatic fantasies” (so to speak). In addition the “conventional slow movement” was labeled “Capriccio;” and its capricious approach to thematic content sounded almost as if the whole thing had been somewhat eccentrically improvised before Haydn put all of his marks onto paper:

The opening measures of Haydn’s “Capriccio” (from IMSLP, public domain)

The following selection was the fifth of that auspicious set of Opus 64 quartets (Hoboken III/63 in D major), known as the “Lark” for the soaring melodic line of the first violin in the opening measures. This was the second set of six quartets written for Johann Tost, who was first engaged at Eszterháza in March of 1783 and became the leader of the orchestra’s second violin section. As already observed, this quartet was written shortly before the death of Prince Nikolaus, whose successor pretty much eliminated all musical activity at Eszterháza. The program then concluded with a selection from the last complete set of quartets that Haydn composed, the fourth (“Sunrise”) of the Opus 76 quartets (Hoboken III.78 in B-flat major), published in 1797 when the composer was living in Vienna as a private citizen with ample financial resources. (Beethoven would not begin work on his first six string quartets until the following year.)

While the Opus 20 quartets tend to be best known for their “revolutionary” qualities, each of these four selections had it own way of reminding London audiences that Haydn never settled into the conventional. Even in Opus 9 Haydn was already exploring ways to depart from convention; and, once he became a “free agent,” he did not have to worry about being accountable for his explorations. He clearly like to set himself challenges and rise to them. For those who attended this week’s San Francisco Symphony program, one can certainly make the case that he knew more about how to depict the dawn than Richard Strauss did and could do so with far fewer instruments!

Listening to NEQ play these quartets on historical instruments, the attentive listener also easily responds to the less conventional sonorities that emerged from earlier instrument-building techniques. One is quickly aware of how the spectral quality of every tone arises from both the placement of the bow and the pressure applied. As a result one can appreciate how the lack of uniformity of timbre may have engendered the exploratory qualities in Haydn’s sonorities that are already emerging in the Opus 9 set (perhaps because the minor key provides more opportunities for such exploration).

The Beethoven Quartet Society did well to remind their audiences of the many virtues of Haydn’s quartets, and NEQ admirably carried their mission into the present day.

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