Haydn, String Quartets Op. 20 Nos 1, 3, 4

Tinalley String Quartet
Move Records MD 3374
Reviewed by , October 1st, 2014

A decade of life has seen the Tinalley String Quartet go from success to success, garnering international attention with a first-prize win at the Banff International String Quartet Competition. This new recording, canvassing half of the epochal Op. 20 quartets, makes a superb contribution to the discography of the Haydn string quartets, and marks another major achievement in the life of this quartet.

Haydn wrote of the Op. 33 quartets that they were composed in an “entirely new and particular manner”. But if that is true, then thinking about the quartet medium had seriously occupied Haydn from at least the period of the Op. 20 quartets, written 10 years before. Op. 20 was a product of that period of disappointment but also of intense creative exploration in service at Eszterháza, the very same period in which Haydn’s adoption of the tropes of Sturm und Drang led to him producing the intensely felt and tautly argued symphonies in the forties. Very far from trivial divertimento-style chamber music, these quartets mark a substantial moment in the claims to high-minded seriousness that marks much of the rest of Haydn’s string quartet output and almost all of that of his student, Beethoven.

Tinballey String Quartet

To speak generally, these performances are marked by almost unerring good judgement, excellent intonation and perfect ensemble. The recorded sound is warm and achieves an admirable synthesis of the whole ensemble. Too often one finds classical music reducible to melody-and-bass with insignificant inner parts, but the recording engineers and the quartet itself have taken Haydn’s attempt to create a conversation of equals seriously, yielding a synthetic whole in which individual contributions are nonetheless never lost.

Just to amplify these points, I’d like to compare the Tinalley Quartet’s performance of the first movement of the G minor quartet with that of the highly-regarded Buchberger Quartet’s performance of it as part of their complete Haydn cycle. The first movement of the G minor quartet represents a kind of toned-down synthesis of some of the lessons learnt in the Sturm und Drang works: abrupt changes of texture, the casting of dissonant chords into relief, and an unusual texture in which the first violin is nearly always being doubled at the octave, producing a strangely glittering sonority that seems at odds with the terse, epithetic nature of the motivic writing. One notices immediately that the Buchberger performance is faster — not markedly so (total running time of 5’58” as opposed to 6’18”) but just enough so that that epithetic nature seems brutally, rather than conversationally and almost misanthropically terse. The flow-on effect of the choice of speed is that the marked articulations of ensemble silence — those moments, for example, when the ensemble rests for a quaver before passing on to a unison passage — pass by without remark in the Buchberger performance, but breathe with suspense and tension in the Tinalley performance. The Buchbergers’ choice of a staccato articulation in the first violin over the sustained chordal passage in the exposition and the relative dryness of the staccato where it is used elsewhere also seem strangely wrong gestures and result in unnecessary aggression. In short, the Buchbergers opt for something that seems more “Baroque” (to be anachronistic) or Beethovenian (to be not so anachronistic); the Tinalley performance is more fugitive, more interior, more in keeping with that sense of the improvisational that is key to the Sturm and Drang — all said, just a better performance. Their performances have a family resemblance when one listens to one quartet after another, and are marked by a certain unwillingness to take big risks, but in this movement, all is perfectly judged.

This recording bodes well for a complete cycle of the Haydn quartets from this group. Fingers crossed…!

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