HAYDN: String Quartets Op. 20, Nos. 1- 3, "Sun Quartets" (Ibolya Toth/ Kodaly Quartet) (Naxos: 8.550701)
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Joseph Haydn (1732- 1809)
String Quartets Op. 20, Nos. 1-3 \Sun Quartets"
Joseph Haydn was born in the village of Rohrau in 1732, the son of a wheelwright. Trained at the choir-school of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, he spent some years earning a living as best he could from teaching and playing the violin or keyboard, and was able to learn from the old musician Porpora, whose assistant he became. Haydn's first appointment was in 1759 as Kapellmeister to a Bohemian nobleman, Count von Morzin. This was followed in 1761 by employment as Vice-Kapellmeister to one of the richest men in the Empire, Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, succeeded on his death in 1762 by his brother Prince Nikolaus. On the death in 1766 of the elderly and somewhat obstructive Kapellmeister, Gregor Werner, Haydn succeeded to his position, to remain in the same employment, nominally at least, for the rest of his life.
On the completion of the magnificent palace at Esterháza, in the Hungarian plains under the new Prince, Haydn assumed command of an increased musical establishment. Here he had responsibility for the musical activities of the palace, which included the provision and direction of instrumental music, opera and theatre music, and music for the church. For his patron he provided a quantity of chamber music of all kinds, particularly for the Prince's own peculiar instrument, the baryton, a bowed string instrument with sympathetic strings that could also be plucked.
On the death of Prince Nikolaus in 1790, Haydn was able to accept an invitation to visit London, where he provided music for the concert season organized by the violinist-impresario Salomon. A second successful visit to London in 1794 and 1795 was followed by a return to duty with the Esterházy family, the new head of which had settled principally at the family property in Eisenstadt, where Haydn had started his career. Much of the year, however, was to be spent in Vienna, where Haydn passed his final years, dying in 1809, as the French armies of Napoleon approached the city yet again.
Haydn lived during the period of the 18th century that saw the development of instrumental music from the age of Bach and Handel to the era of the classical sonata, with its tripartite form, the basis of much instrumental composition. The string quartet itself, which came to represent classical music in its purest form, grew from a genre that was relatively insignificant, at least in its nomenclature, the Divertimento, into music of greater weight, substance and complexity, although Haydn, like any great master, knew well how to conceal the technical means by which he achieved his ends. The exact number of string quartets that Haydn wrote is not known, although he listed some 83. The earlier of these, often under the title Divertimento, proclaim their origin and purpose. The last quartet, Opus 103, started in 1803, remained unfinished.
The Opus 20 Quartets, or Divertimenti, were written in 1772 and published two years later. They are known as the Sun Quartets and have been authoritatively described as works exhibiting the full maturity of the Viennese classical style. The first of the set, in E flat major, opens with the principal theme presented by the first violin, abetted by the viola, before the later thematic entries of second violin and cello, in a movement that shares responsibility between the four players. The Minuet and Trio are placed second, followed by an A flat major slow movement, marked Affettuoso e sostenuto. The quartet ends with a Presto, in which the violins are echoed at first by viola and cello in the principal theme, followed by syncopation from the first violin, an element that re-appears in the later parts of the movement.
It is the cello that states the opening theme of the Quartet in C major, the second of the set, with its central development section accompanied by the rapid semiquavers of the second violin. The C minor slow movement is placed second, with its octave opening from all four instruments leading to greater melodic complexity and elaboration of accompaniment patterns. The C major Minuet, with its musette drone and contrasting Trio, is followed by a final Fugue, described as a Fugue with four subjects, but in fact a double fugue with two countersubjects. Here the first violin is followed by viola, second violin and cello in the statement of the exposition subject. The subject later appears in inversion from the first violin in a movement of contrapuntal ingenuity, that carries the unusual direction sempre sotto voce.
The third quartet of Opus 20 is in the key of G minor, its main theme introduced by first violin and viola. The Minuet and Trio are placed second, leading to a G major Adagio of fascinating intricacy and rhythmic variety. The quartet ends with a lively final rondo.
The members of the Kodály Quartet were trained at the Budapest Ferenc Liszt Academy, and three of them, the second violinist Tamás Szabó, viola-player Gábor Fias and cellist János Devich, were formerly in the Sebestyén Quartet, which was awarded the jury's special diploma at the 1966 Geneva International Quartet Competition and won first prize at the 1968 Leo Weiner Quartet Competition in Budapest. Since 1970, with the violinist Attila Falvay, the quartet has been known as the Kodály Quartet, a title adopted with the approval of the Hungarian Ministry of Culture and Education. The Kodály Quartet has given concerts throughout Europe, in the then Soviet Union and in Japan, in addition to regular appearances in Hungary both in the concert hall and on television and has made for Naxos highly acclaimed recordings of string quartets by Ravel, Debussy, Haydn and Schubert.