HAYDN Six Quartets, Op 20
The Mosaiques' previous Haydn disc (also on Astree, 2/90) contains what for my money are the most penetrating readings of the two Op. 77 works in the catalogue. Now they turn to his first indisputably great set of quartets, of which Tovey memorably remarked: ''There is perhaps no single or sextuple opus in the history of instrumental music which has achieved so much or achieved it so quietly''. Quite apart from the newly won technical mastery of Op. 20, what astonishes about these quartets is their endlessly imaginative variety of form, texture and colour, and the vast range of experience they encompass, from the impassioned F minor, No. 5, perhaps Haydn's most truly tragic sonata work, through the rapt inwardness of No. 1's Affetuoso e sostenuto to the pungent, gipsy-inspired minuet and finale of No. 4.
My high expectations of the Mosaiques in these searching, challenging works were fully realized. In matters of ensemble and intonation they eclipse all other period-instrument quartets I know; and their technical prowess is allied to a richness and subtlety of musical insight. Each of the quartets is boldly and imaginatively expounded, with a deep understanding of its unique character. Listen, for instance, to the Mosaiques' mingled breadth and urgency in No. 5's initial Allegro moderato and their uncommon sense of the music's growth, from the long, elegiac opening paragraph to the mounting desperation of the recapitulation and the strange remote modulations of the coda, to which they bring a wonderful, spectral pianissimo. The Mosaiques rightly maintain the tragic intensity in the following minuet, robust of attack, strong yet pliant of rhythm, with the players characteristically bringing an extra touch of breadth and weight at moments of extreme harmonic tension; and the final fugue, like those of Nos. 2 and 6, unfolds lucidly and steadily, held down to sotto voce, as Haydn requests, until the fortissimo stretto at bar 145 (2A30B) erupts with terrific force.
The Mosaiques bring an apt toughness and rhythmic bite to the other minor-keyed quartet, No. 3, a wiry, astringent, sometimes oddly elliptical work. The opening movement of No. 4, probably the most popular of the set, is done with unusual fire and intensity, while the lightness and buoyancy of the period strings' articulation bring delightful dividends in the finale; and the Mosaiques dare a true Adagio in the D minor variation movement, phrasing with eloquent breadth and flexibility, realizing all the pain of Haydn's harmonic progressions and finding a spare, withdrawn tone colour, drained of all vibrato, for the final, sotto voce statement of the theme (8A21B ff). Other performances that particularly linger in the memory are the extraordinary Capriccio adagio of No. 2, its quasi-operatic rhetorical contrasts powerfully conveyed (Christophe Coin's cello characteristically intense and gutty here); and the Affettuoso e sostenuto slow movement of No. 1, grave and absorbed, the glorious part-writing beautifully balanced, with the players showing their typically acute understanding of the ebb and flow of harmonic tension.
The performances are based on the Barrett Ayres/Landon edition (Doblinger); and anyone following them with the corrupt old Eulenburg scores will notice countless discrepancies of phrasing, dynamics and even actual notes—most obviously in the bar four of No. 3's Minuet, where the first violin rightly plays an F natural, clashing disquietingly with the second violin's F sharp. Quibbles? Well, I've heard dreamier, more tender performances of the Adagio of No. 5, and more darting, skittish readings of the final fugue in No. 6. And while the Mosaiques are usually scrupulous about repeats, they do puzzlingly omit the second-time repeats in one or two movements, most damagingly in the opening of No. 4, where Haydn wrote an extended lead-back to the beginning of the development. But these marvellous, probing performances, recorded with vivid immediacy, are just the ones to convert those who still doubt that period string quartets can rival their modern counterparts in colour, excitement and emotional commitment.'