Recording Review: Haydn String Quartets Hyperion Records

The Times – London
By Geoff Brown
November 18, 2011

Last month in London the Takács Quartet could be heard live, beavering through the complete Bartók string quartets. Two seasons before, they gave us a complete Beethoven cycle, to the usual wild acclaim. High fibre music, all of it. The arrival of two CDs featuring Haydn's Op 71 and Op 74 quartets—six quartets in all, from a catalogue of 68—might suggest that the Takács musicians are now relaxing and twiddling their thumbs. For isn't Haydn easy listening? Music to listen to while you iron bedsheets or bake a cake?

Not so. Least of all when the music is being played by this superlative group, formed in Hungary 36 years ago, now based in Colorado. In these hugely civilised and sophisticated quartets of 1793, written for performance in London, they make a tasty meal of everything, even something as seemingly innocent as the two-chord gesture at the beginning of Op 74 No 1.

Nothing in Haydn is innocuous. This isn't music for multitaskers: the more closely you listen, the more gripping and mischievous it becomes. Key relationships are treacherous; an unexpected chord will appear like a visitor from outer space. The structure of movements is often ambiguous. And textures and moods keep changing. Elegant ease, prancing wit, earthy jollity: it's hard to keep up. Just as well ten that the Takács players, according to their biographies, pursue such active hobbies: hiking, tennis, running.

The ensemble hasn't forgotten its Hungarian roots, and there's always extra flair and bite in their playing when Haydn's inspiration leans towards folk music (the Op 74/1 finale, say). More important still for success are the musicians' clarity of line and perfect balance, well reflected in Hyperion's recording. Try the bright light chatter of the Op 71/1 finale, bows bouncing nimbly over the strings; or the playful, trill-laced kaleidoscope of Op 71/3's first movement; or, in a different register, the slow movement of Op 74/1, with its variations exquisitely fronted by the cello and second violin.

Haydn's compass might be smaller than Beethoven's, but is ingredients are similar: drama, passion, darting wit, intellectual play. After these magnificent CDs, if the Takács wanted to record Haydn's other 62 quartets, I wouldn't raise a hand to stop them.

© 2018 Takács Quartet