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Haydn: Quartets, Op. 33

The Haydn Year recently saw the passing of the great scholar of the composer and his works, H. C. Robbins Landon.

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Haydn, String Quartets, op. 33, Cuarteto Casals

(released on November 10, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HMX 2962022.23
The Cuarteto Casals, a young Spanish string quartet, has pleased my ears on many occasions, both live and in recordings. Some of their best playing at their last concert in the area, at Dumbarton Oaks in 2007, was on one of the Haydn quartets (C major -- op. 54, no. 2). The same technical and interpretative strengths play to the group's advantage on their new Haydn recording, a complete performance of the six "Russian" quartets of op. 33, for Harmonia Mundi's ongoing Haydn Edition in the composer's bicentenary year. By a slight stretch of justification, we can even include this disc as an option for Christmas CDs: some or all of the op. 33 quartets received their world premiere at a Christmas Day party, in 1781, in the Vienna apartments of Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna and her husband, the future Tsar Paul I (whence the opus's nickname). That's my kind of holiday party entertainment.

This Haydn is so successful because the playing is clean but not so immaculate as to be boring, the interpretation straightforward but not mechanical, the tempo choices affording the chance to sparkle but not always feeling compelled to take the listener's breath away. The test of the op. 33 set, perhaps, is the second quartet, "Der Scherz," where too much elbow-jabbing obviousness to the humorous movements can unbalance the seriousness of the slow movement. The drunken glissandi in the first violin part during the second movement's trio, left out of the published versions of the quartet by many editors, are hilarious but not sloppy (the momentary "passing out" at the fermata, m. 60, features a charming little champagne burp of a cadenza on the repeat, only one of many ornaments added in this recording), giving the impression of a drunk person doing his best not to appear tipsy. The eponymous joke is not even until the end of the last movement.

If you are going to own only one recording of the op. 33 quartets, my inclination would be toward the version on historical instruments by Quatuor Mosaïques, for all the reasons written about in my review of their concert at the Library of Congress earlier this year. That box set has the added advantage of having been re-released at a reduced price, nearly half of what this new Harmonia Mundi set costs (although you can take advantage of the Harmonia Mundi sale at Arkiv all this month, to get a couple bucks knocked off the price).

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