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Haydn: String Quartets Op. 55

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Product Details

  • Performer: Kodály Quartet
  • Composer: Franz Joseph Haydn
  • Audio CD (February 15, 1994)
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Naxos
  • ASIN: B0000013QM
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #155,750 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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The "Tost" quartets of Joseph Haydn - Op. 54, Op. 55, & Op. 64 - were all dedicated to Johann Tost, the principal second violinist in Haydn's orchestra at Esterhaza from 1783 to 1788. There are twelve quartets in the three sets, but the only one well known and often performed is Op. 64, Number 5, nicknamed in English "The Lark". Opus 64 was probably composed when Johann Tost paid a return visit to the Esterhazy establishment, perhaps in Vienna. Tost had some role in publishing Haydn's music in Paris, perhaps without authorization from Prince Esterhazy. It's worth noting that Mozart also dedicated his last two quartets to Tost, who had become by then a wealthy merchant.

The three quartets of Opus 55 are wonderfully eccentric and inventive. Even the adagio movements seem joyous and playful. In terms of modulations and development, they must have been compositions of discovery for Haydn, experiments in replacing the galante virtuosity of his earlier quartets with more compact and complex structures. A couple of movements feature fugal passages worthy of Haydn's predecessor Bach or of his succcessor, the Beethoven of the Grosse Fuge. I can only imagine what the first players of and listeners to these 'outlandish' quartets thought of them, whether they were astounded, outraged, disgusted, or delighted. I can still hear astonishment in them amid plenty of delight.

This 1990 recording is worth having solitaire, but it's included in the 25-CD edition from Naxos of "The Complete Haydn Quartets", selling for a price one can hardly refuse. I've been listening to assorted choices from that big set. Frankly I haven't been excited by the Kodaly Quartet's rendition of some of the later compositions, the "Lobkowitz" quartets for instance. But what to my wondering ears, they play Op.
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Format: Audio CD
Firstly, I congratulate my Beloved Adversary - the flamboyant, charismatic and controversial GB - who has likewise reviewed this disc. His comments are astute - well done mate! That being said, I am mystified by his laudatory reference to the Salomon Quartet: vinegary of tone, they are the masters of the clipped phrase. How anyone could describe them as being a "sweeter, more sonorous" alternative is beyond me. If "tobacco products" are being imported into the States from Jamaica, they warrant the scrutiny of the FDA.

Opus 54 / 55 is not my favourite set in Haydn's canon but it is graced by two masterpieces: Opus 54 / 2 and the Razor Quartet. Ignore the coining of the latter's moniker: more deeply, it is a reference to the mettle of the composer's mind. Papa Haydn might have been an genial, avuncular figure but we underestimate his baseline intelligence at our own peril. The fugal second movement of the Razor is a stupendous creation, like so many stars revolving around a magnetic pole. Enthroned in Elysium, one wonders what Johann Sebastian Bach thinks of it.

The virtues of the Kodaly Quartet are well known: poetic insight, unanimity of ensemble and dramaturgy. With the exception of the Sun Quartets, they're a sure bet in Haydn. The high-water mark is their survey of Opus 76 where all things converge. I am not convinced their Opus 55 is quite on the same level. As I hear it, there is less spontaneity in their output compared with their finest work in Opus 76. The Naxos recording is acceptable.

This is first class, not barn-storming exceptional. As there is no definitive performance of Opus 55 on the market, empty your pockets; purchase this disc with your pennies. Sixpence and much the wiser.
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