Haydn’s six Op. 20 string quartets are milestones in the history of the genre. He wrote them in 1772 for performance by his colleagues at the Esterházy court and, unusually, not specifically for publication. Each one is a unique masterpiece and the set introduces compositional techniques that radically transformed the genre and shaped it for centuries to come. Haydn overturns conventional instrumental roles, crafts remarkably original colours and textures, and unlocks new expressive possibilities in these works which were crucial in establishing the reputation of purely instrumental music. The range within the quartets is kaleidoscopic. From the introspective, chorale-like slow movement of No. 1 via the terse and radical quartet No. 3 in G minor to the comic spirit of the fourth in D major, each of the quartets inhabits a distinct musical world. For many, this is some of the greatest music Haydn ever wrote. Playing these seminal works is one of the world’s finest young ensembles, the Doric String Quartet.
Co-chief conductors Riccardo Minasi and Maxim Emelyanychev take turns on the podium leading this period-instrument band in a rousing collection of concertos by Haydn. Il Pomo d'Oro has been hailed "a wonderful ensemble, and Minasi an outstanding musician" capable of "bringing the house down with his virtuosity" (The Guardian). Emelyaychev's award-winning harpsichord joins Minasi's violin in the soloists' spotlight, along with the distinguished natural horn of Johannes Hinterholzer. The concertos are complemented by Haydn's Symphony No 83 (known as The Hen, because of the ‘clucking’ figures on the strings in its second movement) and his Keyboard Fantasia Hob.XVII:4.
What a versatile artist Steven Isserlis is. Having made his name as a sympathetic interpreter of a wide variety of romantic and modern music, here he shows he can be just as persuasive in eighteenth-century repertoire. His stylistic awareness is evident in beautiful, elegant phrasing, selective use of vibrato and varied articulation, giving an expressive range that never conflicts with the music’s natural language. In the cello concertos he is helped by an extremely sensitive accompaniment, stressing the chamber musical aspects of Haydn’s pre-London orchestral writing. The soft, intimate sonority at 3'06'' in the first movement of the D major is a typical example. The Adagios are taken at a flowing speed, but Isserlis’s relaxed approach means they never sound hurried. The Allegro molto finale of the C major Concerto, on the other hand, sounds poised rather than the helter-skelter we often hear. In his understanding of the music, Isserlis is a long way ahead of Han-na Chang, whose version places the emphasis on fine, traditional-style cello playing. Mork’s vivacious, imaginative performances characterize the music very strongly, but my preference would be for Isserlis’s and Norrington’s lighter touch and greater refinement.
This was to be the end of the line for Italian word-setting by Viennese composers: once the confident sentiments that belonged to the poet Metastasio's opera seria felt the chill and threatening wind of Enlightenment and Revolution, their time was up. Even we, for the most part, prefer to remember the German-speaking Beethoven, Schubert and Haydn. So it is good to be reminded of their responses to the Italian muse (usually as part of their craft-learning student work) in this particularly well-cast recital. Central Europe, in the person of Andras Schiff meets Italy, in Cecilia Bartoli, to delightful, often revelatory effect.
Brett Dean is not shy about revealing what his music is ‘about’. Whether inspired by certain individuals (as in Epitaphs), or by an ecological or human disaster (as in his String Quartet No. 1, on the now all too topical plight of refugees), Dean’s works are usually – perhaps invariably – driven by extra-musical narratives. Rather than tease out any innate structural puzzles or tensions, his music typically falls into short little dramatic narratives – no movement on this disc lasts as long as eight minutes, many of them rather less than five. The most obviously successful work here is Quartet No. 2, ‘And once I played Ophelia’, effectively a dramatic scena. Its soprano soloist is no mere extra voice (as in Schoenberg’s Second Quartet) but the leading protagonist. Allison Bell’s genuinely affecting performance is backed by the Doric Quartet’s expressionist scampering and sustained harmonies, the strings occasionally coming to the fore in the manner of a Schumann-style song postlude.