It will be interesting to see how the Haydn, Handel and Mendelssohn anniversaries this year play out compared to the great Mozart bonanza in 1991. None of the three composers have the Peter Shaffer play and Milos Forman movie going for them, factors which definitely helped Mozart into delirious universal consciousness. Of the three, Haydn is the most sober and the least interesting in a tabloid sense. And yet he is no less a musical giant, nor is the story of his life and the structural blueprints of his compositional process any less fascinating.

All this as a preface to the likelihood that the great Haydn recordings and discoveries this year are more likely to be relatively unexpected affairs. The first is certainly the complete string quartet cycle which the Auryn Quartet have embarked upon - with almost no preliminary fanfare - for the German audiophile label, Tacet (which to musicians means silence and to audiophiles means purity).

This volume, the third in the series to be released (the first two were devoted to Op. 1 and Op. 33), comprises quartets in three keys which reveal very different aspects of Haydn’s multifaceted personality. The first in C major, like his cello concerto in the same key, is a virtuosic tour de force and yet surprisingly public sense of sensuality. The second in F major, is both enigmatic and epigrammatic, and casually gracious in a characteristically 18th century style that "insiders" at the time would recognize for expressive code. The third in G minor is a spectacular powerhouse of beauty and crowd-pleasing dynamite which has long been a staple of chamber music concerts.

There is no shortage of great Haydn quartet recordings, though few combine elegance and energy with such richly magisterial drama as this one, and none is more superbly recorded (the quality recalling the best of the vinyl era without analogue’s attendant color and distortion). As a fast and ferocious counterfoil (though in no way a replacement) to the Auryns, I suggest the Op. 71 and 74 sets recorded more than 40 years ago by the Griller Quartet, performances which respond to the darker side of the composer.
Laurence Vittes

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