Op.33 set of six string quartets, written in 1781 when he was 49, were his first
in ten years, and are generally considered to show the composer reaching a new
level of subtlety and sophistication — in short, wit — in chamber music.
This quality, along with Haydn's characteristic robust energy and a sentiment
that seems simultaneously warm and cool, is brought out admirably by the Borodin
Quartet's new recording.
The set contains three of Haydn's better-known, because nicknamed, quartets. The "Bird" Quartet (No. 3) has "pecking" rhythms in its first movement (cf. the "Hen" Symphony written four years later), and the "How Do You Do?" Quartet (No. 5) is so named because the opening and closing four notes of the first movement suggest the common greeting. (Does this title sound less silly in the original German: Das "Wie Geht Es Dir? "Quartett?) As for the "Joke" (No. 2), it gets its name from the teasing conclusion of its finale, where we're made to think the piece is over when it isn't. To be sure, as everyone likes to point out, just as the "Surprise" Symphony has many less obvious surprises than the sudden fortissimo in the slow movement, the whole "Joke" Quartet is full of more subtle tricks, and it's worth mentioning that in all six of these quartets Haydn used the label "Scherzo" ("joke" in Italian) for the lively inner movement preceding or following the slow movement. Maybe a better term for the "jokes" scattered throughout these quartets (and indeed in most of Haydn's works) would be "felicities" — or again, "wit." Take the opening of No. 1: we start out in D major, but this quartet is in B minor, and what we are hearing is a "preview" of the second theme (in the relative major) once the actual "first" theme in B minor has been stated.
Regardless of nicknames, we might have favorites
among this set, but even the most critical listener would surely be hard-pressed
to say that any one is inferior to the others. And similarly I would be very
hard-pressed to find any quartet on the CDs at hand where the Borodin Quartet is
less than fully committed to bringing out the energy, expressiveness, ingenuity
and overall beauty of each quartet. Their sound is somewhat leaner, their touch
somewhat lighter, than that of some other quartets; listeners seeking the spirit
of historically informed performances but the sound of modern instruments should
be very satisfied. Every movement is praiseworthy: at this moment I am
especially taken by the Largo e cantabile
movement of No. 5, a great example of Haydn portraying strong sentiment without
seeming to be expressing some private drama as in a late Beethoven or even later
Mozart slow movement. Here the Borodin players are especially rich in feeling,
striking in dynamic contrasts, full of vitality. But these same words could be
used for their playing of the various ebullient finales: those of Nos. 1 and 3
stand out in particular for me, but there is certainly no dud among the six.
Incidentally, for those seeking a link between the Russian quartet and the
set's nickname, Haydn certainly did not attempt to incorporate Russian themes
into the music, but did dedicate the set to the Grand Duke (later Tsar) Paul of
Russia, in whose Viennese apartment several of the works were premiered.
Nothing but praise is due for the sound Onyx provides, capturing the edge and brilliance of the strings without the least hint of "bite" or astringency, in an acoustic that seems warm and up front.