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When the four quartets on this CD were recorded, in 2000, the Kodaly Quartet ("KQ") had been playing together for thirty years. It shows. What is evident on this recording, as on all of the KQ's recordings of the entire Haydn cycle of string quartets, is the perfect cohesion of these highly talented musicians; they clearly have an intimate knowledge of the score and thoroughly enjoy playing together. The KQ's performance is fresh, truly conveys their love for this music, and fully brings to life the range of emotions contained in this musical microcosm - playfulness, elegance, sunny joy, and gentle reverie - with every movement of these quartets having a quality of refinement and graciousness that allows the listener to savor every note.
The allegro movements on this CD have a wonderful rhythmic vitality, such as in the short (1:47) but wonderful last movement (Presto) of Op. 3, No.1, that begins slowly, as if it were an adagio, and suddenly moves forward with a bouncing sense of fun. Other movements, such as the first movement (Fantasia con Variazioni: Andante) of Op. 3, No. 2, convey a charming playfulness and sunny joy. The pizzicato measures in the fourth (Menuetto) movement of Op. 2, No. 5 are utterly charming. While listening to the allegro and minuetto movements, one can imagine elegantly dressed men and women in the 18th century, with the women in long, flowing silk dresses, moving across the dance floor to the sounds of this wonderful music. Although this chamber music was originally composed for small private gatherings, the fast movements have a lively rhythm that evokes the image of dancing couples.
The slow movements are played with a beautiful tenderness that invites the listener to close his eyes and float upwards into a serene musical heaven. For example, when I listen to the largo of the Op. 2, No. 5 String Quartet, with its sweetly singing violin, as the viola and cello provide a gentle response and soothing rhythm anchoring its melody, I feel as if I'm floating in the clouds like an albatross with its wings outspread, being lifted by air currents as it slowly glides through an azure sky on a warm summer day.
This digital recording, made at the Phoenix Studio in Budapest, has a superb sound quality that is crystal clear, capturing the KQ's precision and their sensitivity to every nuance of every note. The sound engineering is truly first-rate, and gives a feeling of immediacy and physical presence to the instruments. It is only one step away from having the musicians actually performing in front of you, in your own living room.
I am absolutely delighted with this series of the complete Haydn string quartets by the KQ. Rather than buying the complete set at once, I acquired it by buying the CDs one-by-one and enjoying each one individually. Having begun by getting Haydn's later quartets, that are widely recognized as his greatest ones, I at first hesitated to get his very earliest efforts in that genre, wondering if they might be in some way disappointing when compared to, for example, his Prussian quartets, and especially hesitating to acquire quartets that were probably not even composed by him. In fact, as stated as the beginning of Allan Badley's excellent and very detailed and informative CD booklet essay, "the four works on this CD no longer form part of the accepted canon of Haydn's string quartets. The two works from Op. 2 are spurious arrangments of authentic Haydn works and the Op. 3 quartets are now widely believed to be the work of Pater Romanus Hoffstetter."
As it turns out, every volume in the series has been a delight, including this one, with its "spurious arrangements" and its quartets that may very well have been composed by Hoffstetter (1742 - 1815).
The clear consensus of musicologists is that these early works are not nearly at the same level of musical inventiveness and complexity as Haydn's later quartets, the ones that are widely recognized as his greatest masterpieces of chamber music. Yet, these early string quartets are more than mere historical footnotes. They are also beautiful music, irrespective of who composed them, Haydn or Hoffstetter. They are delightful and very worthy compositions in their own right. Again, I quote Allan Badley, who says it so well: "There is much to admire in the Op. 3 Quartets, whoever the composer may have been. They are elegant, neatly composed works with lively outer movements, gentle, graceful slow movements, and the kind of lilting, intoxicating minuets that are an integral part of Austrian music of the period." The fact that these string quartets are less musically complex than Haydn's later masterpieces, such as the Opus 71, "Apponyi" quartets, in no way detracts from their beauty for me. Having now listened several times to this CD, I feel that if I had only heard Haydn's late quartets, I would have missed something wonderful.
I would gladly have paid twice as much for this CD and still felt it was an excellent value. In fact, it's almost unbelievable that a recording of such high quality is available at such a low price. As mentioned above, the CD booklet is excellent; it has a well-written, extensive, informative essay, containing historical information, a musical analysis of these string quartets, and information on the Kodaly Quartet. Very highly recommended. Playing Time = 71:47