The Haydn String Quartet series by the Auryn Quartet has garnered such critical praise that I was looking forward with real anticipation to hearing a sample. By the luck of the draw, I got to audit the Auryn’s Op. 20, the set of quartets in which Haydn truly set his mark on the genre and changed it for all times. And these are splendid interpretations of Haydn’s groundbreaking music.
As late as the Op. 20 Quartets, Haydn was still applying the term "divertimento" to his works for string quartet, but it is obvious that he had left the divertimento tradition, followed in his own Op. 1 and Op. 2 Quartets, far behind. He announces his new maturity of thinking immediately in Op. 20 No. 1, with its serenely beautiful Affetuoso e sostenuto slow movement and expansive sonata-rondo finale. This is a big confident sonata-form work with none of the trappings of Rococo entertainment music about it.
The simple fact that two of the quartets (Nos. 3 and 5) are in the minor key should alert us that we are not in for polite background music. Plus the fact that three of the quartets (Nos. 2, 5, and 6) end in fugue, a learned gesture that is no mere obeisance to Baroque tradition but another mark of serious intent and of the pains Haydn took to bring an individual character to each of the quartets.
For example, in No. 4—the favorite of the set since they first appeared in 1772—there is a clear Haydn hallmark: a minuet marked Menuet alla Zingarese featuring the bounding Gypsy rhythms that the composer would turn to again and again in his music. The especially long last movement, marked Presto e scherzando, is pure Haydn, too: witty, cheerful, bracingly athletic in its momentum.
These are wonderful performances, limning the character of Haydn’s inventive music at every turn, whether it’s the brow-furrowing seriousness of No. 5 in F Minor or the sunny insouciance of No. 4 in D Major. The booklet that accompanies the recording tells us that the Auryn Quartet has played together for twenty-seven years without a change of personnel, explaining the remarkable sense of ensemble throughout. But the uniform beauty of tone is another matter; these are four superb musicians.
Tacet’s recording is a thing of beauty as well, with pin-point placement of the instruments in a warmly resonant acoustic. The notes mention that the venue is a church, but there is no churchly chill or blurring of timbres; this is one of the cleanest and clearest quartet recordings I’ve heard. Kudos, then, to everyone involved in this project, and may all of the installments be as fine as the present one.Lee Passarella