Haydn String Quartets, Op 76
Haydn’s Op 76 quartets represent one of the peaks of his output. Less serene and poised than the two final quartets that were to follow, these six have a kind of magisterial eccentricity, as if the composer, his London achievements and triumphs behind him, could at last afford to throw off convention and be wholly himself, not only through his new-found self-assurance but also through his total, absolute command of the materials of music. There is scarcely a movement in any of these six quartets that does not represent some sort of departure from the acknowledged norms of the time, something that arrests the listener’s attention and extends the scope of the genre.
And in the realisation of this the Quatuor Mosaiques are masterly. A group more predisposed to sweet, silky sound might find it difficult to give voice to some of the oddities in these works, especially those (like the E major passage in the first movement of No 3, the Trio of No 4 or the finale of No 5) that draw on the manner of folk music. The Mosaiques play with great energy and vigour, with fearless attack and powerful rhythm, on period instruments on which they use only very modest vibrato and often none at all; their intonation, without the safety net of vibrato, is wonderfully accurate and their chording is a delight, but sometimes the ear is inclined to weary of the close and occasionally even rather shrill sound. These are uncompromising performances which make no concessions to ingratiation. But their particular tonal palette is naturally apt for the contrapuntal textures that permeate these quartets and practically take over in several movements, especially in No 6.
Another strength of their playing lies in their capacity, by means of rhythmic tension and dynamic control, to make plain to the listener the shape of a movement and to ‘place’ its important junctures. Yet they retain a kind of freshness, a sense of new discovery of the music, almost a feeling that they are improvising (listen for example to the Adagio of No 4, the first movement of No 2 or the flights of fancy in the variations of No 3). There is a lot of crisp, strongly accented playing in the finales, notably in Nos 3 and 5, although some finales (Nos 1 and 4) are taken quite deliberately (I love the way they do the tiddly-om-pom-pom rhythms in the finale of No 1 – just the right sort of bounce). For music that explains the meaning of Haydn’s remark about ‘ingenious jesting with art’, listen to the Trio of No 3 and, especially, that of No 6: these players know how Haydn says serious things in a witty way.
The heart of these quartets, however, lies in the rapt quality of some of the slow movements, especially the amazing F sharp major Largo of No 5 and the B major Fantasia of No 6; some may find them a little austere here, and they are often taken rather more slowly than this, but the glow and the intensity, and the sense of vision that belongs to the music, are unmistakable.
Some readers, I imagine, will find traditional performances of these works more appealing and easier to listen to than these intense, uncompromising, sometimes almost harsh ones. Yet I do believe that the Quatuor Mosaiques truly have the measure of the music and bring out more of its distinctive and idiosyncratic features than others do, and I warmly recommend these two discs.'