Nicholas Yonge Society

Chamber Music in Lewes

23rd January 2015

Haydn String Quartet Op. 33 No. 6 in D
Haydn String Quartet Op. 76 No. 4 in B flat
Beethoven String Quartet Op. 127 in E flat

London Haydn Quartet in performancePerformance on ‘period instruments’ is now more or less the norm for the music of the baroque; interest in the stalwarts of the period, Bach, Handel and Vivaldi has grown enormously thanks to the transparent textures and  astringent timbres produced by gut strings, one-keyed flutes and natural trumpets. Rameau, virtually a reinvention of early music, is now entering the repertoire of the modern symphony orchestra, bringing both the sounds and the playing styles of ‘historical performance’ into the mainstream. In classical, as opposed to baroque, repertoire any sense of division of territory is far less clear-cut, with both ‘modern’ and ‘period’ ensembles flourishing side by side in the symphonic and the operatic fields (as we well know from the presence of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the pit at Glyndebourne). With chamber music, however, this is not the case, and ensembles such as the London Haydn Quartet, playing according to ‘historically informed’ performance style and technique, are very much the exception, rather than the rule.

As if to underline the quality of their sound, and the sheer fragility of the four individual voices, the quartet began the evening with a work in which the instruments enter separately, rather than together, in short phrases which immediately set up a lively dialogue among the group. This was the sixth of Haydn’s opus 33 quartets, which are reckoned the first mature masterpieces of the medium. The inner parts, Violin 2 and Viola, were quickly gossiping among themselves, almost oblivious of the leader and the cello who one expected to hold the thing together. The cellist, Jonathan Manson, is a relatively new recruit to the group, but, since he is the brother of the leader, presumably fitted right in. There was a finesse and a brilliance to his sound which lifted the entire quartet; the blend with the other instruments was utterly ideal and seemingly full of upper resonances which complemented the sprightly mood of the movement.

Haydn’s opus 76 quartets were written 15 years later; the earlier intimacy was replaced with a more public, declamatory attitude. The sinuous opening motif on the first violin that gives the quartet its nickname, The Sunrise, seemed to detach itself only reluctantly from the gorgeously plush cushion supplied by the lower strings, clinging to every semitone clash as it pulled itself from slumber. In the central section of the movement, these underlying chords take on quite the opposite character, driving the harmony into more and more obscure reaches, and the players weighed into them, using the looser hair of the classical bow to make accents which lasted almost half the length of the note. The Adagio slow movement was an object lesson is expressive playing, almost entirely without vibrato, the music sustained by impeccably measured phrasing. As so often with Haydn, the lively finale had something of the character of a folk dance. As it speeds up towards its conclusion, the music is pared down to single line, threaded among the parts with seamless panache. Haydn’s little jest of exposing the players in this way only makes sense when they play perfectly together, and here, nothing was left to be desired.

After the interval, the audience was reminded by the leader, Catherine Manson, how unusual it was to hear late Beethoven played on instruments of the period. Since the first half had attuned our ears to the lightness and freshness of Haydn’s sound world, the opening of Beethoven’s E flat quartet, opus 127, was immediately arresting; with all the players double-stopping, on the scale of volume alone, we were in a different dimension.  In the 40 minutes that followed – as long as several of Beethoven’s symphonies – we were taken on a tour through a succession of rooms, each one more  dazzling, more intriguing, more richly decorated than the last. The feeling of momentum was never lost, least of all in the slow movement, where bursts of light penetrated calm reflection, only to fizzle away, leaving not gloom, but a wise tranquillity. For me, this was certainly the highlight of the evening. When the quartet chose to play the slow movement from Haydn’s op. 50 no. 5, The Dream, as an encore, perhaps they too recognised this mood was so special it deserved to be prolonged.

Reviewer: Timothy Wilcox
Photographer: David James