Thanks for the Memories, Papa
By Mel Cooper
I used to maintain that, if you wanted to get to know Haydn String Quartets (a form he virtually invented and certainly developed brilliantly), you need not bother with anything before Opus 20.
Now, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death, there is a wealth of newly-recorded CDs, re-releases, and compilations of music by this most sane and balanced of composers, and I am compelled to report shamefacedly that I was wrong, wrong, wrong!
Humble pie must be eaten, because the London Haydn Quartet have taken it upon themselves to perform two of his early sets of quartets. Their recordings of the Opus 9 and Opus 17 cycles of six quartets each have made me think again. Not only are these superbly articulated and joyful performances, but they reveal exactly the qualities that Mozart became so eager to develop in his own string quartets.
In gratitude for what he had learned, he even dedicated a set to Haydn, and Papa himself joined Mozart in the premieres of all those quartets dedicated to him, making the dedication even more apt. By the way, if you want to exercise your Inner Meanie, and confuse CD shop assistants who are never sure what you mean when you ask for the Haydn Quartets—those by Haydn himself? Or the ones Mozart wrote and dedicated to him?—pose the question!
I am sincerely hoping that the London Haydn Quartet will now go on to record the rest of the quartets written by Haydn, since they are playing all of them live this year in repertory. They are now touring the world, performing all of Haydn’s Quartets, in cycles of 20 concerts (see if some of them are coming to your neighborhood). They are even playing them in Esterházy, where Haydn lived and worked for over 30 years, and whose 18th-century Count was Haydn’s long-time patron. The London Haydn Quartet was founded originally because of its love for this music; they play it on gut strings with classical bows. Maybe that’s what makes all the difference?
From the same British CD label—Hyperion—that overturned my Haydn Quartet prejudices, we also get the first two volumes of Haydn’s Piano Sonatas, performed with great thoughtfulness, grace, and precision (though not on period instruments)by Marc-André Hamelin.
Though Hamelin is a technically brilliant pianist, he never displays his virtuosity for its own sake, subsuming it instead to the sometimes apparently simple, yet always sublime, writing of Haydn and to his own thoughtfulness. Try the jaunty Piano Sonata in C major, or the one in E minor, or the Fantasia in C major, all on the first disc of Volume 2; you will hear how fresh and apt the interpretations are! There is something truly compelling about Haydn’s piano sonata- writing, and Hamelin totally “gets” it. This is high quality playing that is extremely sensitive to the musical idiom. Hear it for yourself: http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/al.asp?al=CDA67554
More Haydn will doubtlessly appear before the end of 2009, but these are my top picks so far. I am also looking forward to the next volume of the Florestan Trio’s complete set of Haydn’s Piano Trios (the first of which appeared a few months ago). To my ears, this is a group that can do no wrong. You should check out their Beethoven and Schubert, too. Florestan rules! Meantime, Hyperion is already doing Haydn particularly proud, and I am going back to gorge on another sample.
Haydn, String Quartets, Op 9, London Haydn Quartet CDA 67611;
Haydn, String Quartets, Op 17, London Haydn Quartet CDA 6772;
Haydn, Piano Sonatas, Vol 1, Marc-André Hamelin, piano CDA 67554;
Haydn, Piano Sonatas, Vol 2, Marc-André Hamelin, piano CDA 67710;
Haydn, Piano Trios Vol 1, The Florestan Trio CDA 67719