HAYDN: String Quartets Op. 55, Nos. 1 - 3 (Andras Soos/ Kodaly Quartet) (Naxos: 8.550397)
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Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
String Quartet in A Major, Op. 55, No.1,Hob. III: 60
String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 55, No.2,Hob. III: 61
String Quartet in B Flat Major, Op. 55,No.3, Hob. III: 62
Joseph Haydn was born in the village ofRohrau 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 hecould from teaching and playing the violin or keyboard, and was able to learnfrom the old musician Porpora, whose assistant he became. Haydn's firstappointment was in 1739 as Kapellmeister to a Bohemian nobleman, Count vonMorzin. This was followed in 1761 by employment as Vice-Kapellmeister to one ofthe richest men in the Empire, Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy, succeeded after hisdeath in 1762 by Prince Nikolaus. On the death in 1766 of the elderly andsomewhat obstructive Kapellmeister, Gregor Werner, Haydn succeeded to hisposition, to remain in the same employment for the rest of his life.
On the completion of the magnificentpalace at Esterhaza, in the Hungarian plains under Prince Nikolaus, Haydnassumed command of an increased musical establishment. Here he hadresponsibility for the musical activities of the palace, which included theprovision and direction of instrumental music, opera and theatre music, andmusic for the church. For his patron he provided a quantity of chamber music ofall 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 musicfor the concert season organized by the violinist-impresario Salomon. A secondsuccessful visit to London in 1794 and 1795 was followed by a return to dutywith the Esterhazy family, the new head of which had settled principally at thefamily property in Eisenstadt, where Haydn had started his career. Much of theyear, 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 18thcentury that saw the development of instrumental music from the age of Bach andHandel to the era of the classical sonata, with its tripartite form, the basisof much instrumental composition. The string quartet itself, which came torepresent classical music in its purest form, grew from a genre that wasrelatively insignificant, at least in its nomenclature, the Divertimento, intomusic of greater weight, substance and complexity, although Haydn, like anygreat master, knew well how to conceal the technical means by which he achievedhis 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 titleDivertimento, proclaim their origin and purpose. The last quartet, opus 103,started in 1803 remained unfinished.
The string quartets of opus 55 form thesecond three of a set of half a dozen quartets dedicated to the violinistJohann Tost, a man who led the second violins in Haydn's orchestra at Esterhazafrom 1783 until his departure for Paris in 1788, although he is mentioned asMusic Director for the Seipp theatre company in Pressburg (the modernBratislava) in the previous year. In Paris he sold for publication the sixquartets of opus 54 and opus 55 and two new symphonies, transaction that seemto have caused some trouble. He had in any case, during his time at Esterhaza,suggested a lucrative scheme for pirating compositions belonging to the Prince.
He later returned to Vienna, and in 1790 married a housekeeper in the serviceof Prince Esterhazy, becoming a prosperous cloth-merchant. Nine years later wehear of his approach to Spohr with suggestion that he buy exclusive rights overhis chamber music compositions for a period of three years, so that frequentperformances, particularly of chamber music, would allow him entry to the besthouses in Vienna, where Spohr's chamber music might be performed, andfacilitate business contacts, when he travelled. Spohr agreed to the proposaland the sliding scale of fees offered, rising according to the number ofinstruments written for. The immediate result was two string quartets and theNonet.
This first set of string quartets forJohann Tost was written in 1777 and 1778. The Quartet in A major, Op. 55,No.1, starts with a forthright theme that at once establishes the tonality.
This is linked to the second theme of a traditionally tripartite sonata-formmovement by a triplet passage. In the slow movement the entry of the firstviolin is delayed, and the second violin allowed to announce the principaltheme in a lower register. The Minuet, characteristic of Haydn, is contrastedwith a Trio that takes the first violin to dizzy heights and leads to a finalewhich, in its contrapuntal features, suggests the influence of Mozart, whosestring quartets dedicated to him Haydn had so much admired.
The String Quartet in F minor, Op. 55,No.2, in sometimes known as The Razor. The origin of the title lies not inthe music but in an anecdote relating to the visit to Esterhaza of the Englishmusic publisher John Bland. Haydn, shaving with a poor razor, is supposed tohave exclaimed that he would give his best quartet for a pair of decent razors.
Bland is said to have hurried back to his lodgings and returned with a pair ofEnglish razors, to be rewarded with the Quartet in F minor. The work opens witha set of double variations on themes in F minor and F major. The secondmovement, an F minor Allegro, has its surprises in sudden silences and changesof tonality, and ends in F major. This key is continued in the followingMinuet, which allows the viola a brief moment of glory, in duet with the firstviolin, before the material is redistributed among the four instruments. Therepeated Minuet frames an F minor Trio and the quartet ends with a brilliantfinale.
The last of the opus 55 quartets, in Bflat major, opens with all four players in unison, before each takes his ownharmonic path. The E flat Adagio allows the first violin ornate decoration inits central section. It is followed by a cheerful Minuet and Trio and a dashingfinal movement.
The members of the Kodaly Quartet weretrained at the Budapest Ferenc Liszt Academy, and three of them, the secondviolin Tamas Szabo, viola-player Gabor Fias and cellist Janos Devich, wereformerly in the Sebestyen Quartet, which was awarded the jury's special diplomaat the 1966 Geneva International Quartet Competition and won first prize at the1968 Leo Weiner Quartet Competition in Budapest. Since 1970, with the violinistAttila Falvay, the quartet has been known as the Kodaly Quartet, a titleadopted with the approval of the Hungarian Ministry of Culture and Education.
The Kodaly Quartet has given concerts throughout Europe, in the Soviet Unionand in Japan, in addition to regular appearances in Hungary both in the concerthall and on television.