There is a lot to enjoy here, not least the works themselves, which are all fine examples of Haydn’s skill and inspiration as a String Quartet composer. The members of the London-based Jubilee Quartet are respectively Czech, Canadian, Spanish and British and have been together for only a year or two, although the leader formed the group as long ago as 2006. They are clearly interesting and intelligent players – Julia Loucks has written an enthusiastic booklet note which I have appreciated reading – but in taking on one of the two greatest musicians of the late-eighteenth century, they seem to be ever so slightly out of their depth. In Haydn and Mozart there is nowhere to hide. One of the words Loucks uses about these three Quartets is “earthy”, and there is nothing earthy about the Jubilee interpretations.
They present the three Quartets in the reverse order of composition, which means ending with two works in C-major. Opuses 64/4 and 54/2 were written for Johann Tost, who was apparently both a brilliant violinist and something of a nefarious character. The G-major is not as well known as its two successors in Opus 64, but it is a favourite with amateur quartettists. The Jubilee musicians make quite a buoyant start to the Allegro but it is not really con brio as directed: they observe a wide range of dynamics but keep getting slower as they get softer, which is just as ludicrous as speeding up when getting louder – I am all for proper pianissimos but it is not necessary for the tone to get all wispy and almost disappear altogether. In the Minuet there is a hint of pussyfooting: they leave a gap before the Trio, in which again they rather pussyfoot about. In the lovely Adagio, mostly consisting of a varied violin solo against an accompaniment, I get a little tired of the violin’s tone, with virtually no vibrato, and the variants need to sound more purposeful, as if she really means it. In the Finale (Presto) they finally get on with things: they still have a good dynamic range but with no hint of the airy-fairy.
It is very unusual for me to set up the Amadeus Quartet as an exemplar in Haydn, indeed I am often critical of this ensemble’s Haydn, but it so happens that the musicians play 64/4 and 54/2 particularly well. Their tempo for the Allegro con brio of the G-major is much faster than that of the Jubilee; they are more robust in the Minuet; Norbert Brainin is more idiosyncratic, Tost-like and interesting than Tereza Privratska in the Adagio; and they are again more robust in the Finale.
With 54/2, we come to one of Haydn’s most individual, experimental and rewarding Quartets. The Jubilee foursome adopt quite a good tempo and are quite bold at the start of the Vivace, but they could be even braver and more brilliant. Similarly they could be bolder in the development. I must mention that their intonation is excellent. In the strange Adagio, where Haydn demands playing that is almost gypsy-like from the first violinist, they start very slowly and the leader gets the improvisatory atmosphere pretty well. The Minuet is taken at a good tempo – it is a very cogent movement in which the minor-key Trio is almost an extension of the Minuet itself – and it ends very robustly. The unusual Finale begins in rather stately fashion and they play really quietly in the first Adagio, picking up nicely for the Presto and returning adroitlyto the Adagio coda.
Turning to the Amadeus interpretation – I listened to the stereo version, which is a little more expansive than the mono – you will find that the musicians are more positive in the Vivace; Brainin is more gipsy-like than Privratska in the Adagio; they are firm in the Minuet and Trio; and they keep up a good impetus in the first Adagio of the Finale, switching to a fine Presto and reverting firmly to the Adagio. They know exactly where they are going, at any point in the work.
Opus 20/2 got off to a rather dubious start in the recording studio when Quatuor Pro Arte told a whopper to HMV in saying that they played all the Haydn Quartets and arrived for their third day of sessions in 1931 to find this totally new (to them) work on their music stands. As it happens, HMV were making experimental 33rpm recordings that day and we can hear their struggles as they rehearsed it. They got through pretty well but played the fugal Finale at such a careful speed that generations of amateurs must have thought that was the right tempo!
Fortunately subsequent ensembles have come to it better prepared and I have at least half-a-dozen splendid sets of the complete Opus 20, apart from those in the Aeolian and Angeles cycles. The Jubilee players take a good tempo for the opening Moderato: violin tone is still a bit wiry, no doubt influenced by period instrument players, but once again they observe a good dynamic range. The Adagio starts firmly and emphatically in unison and they really get beneath the skin of this profound movement, moving easily into the somewhat oddball start of the Minuet. They get the droning quality of one passage well and handle the rather offbeat Trio with aplomb. Loucks mentions that they have specially noted Haydn’s requests for the voices in the Fugue to be sempre sotto voce: I think they slightly overdo this effect and the overall impression is a bit (this time) airy-fairy, but they get more robust at the end and this is their best performance of the three.As there is clearly a period-instrument influence at play in the corporate sonority of the Jubilee Quartet, I thought I would make some comparisons in 20/2 with the Festetics Quartet of Budapest, who really do use period instruments. There the violin tone is much more substantial, the varied use of a certain amount of vibrato lends interest and the whole approach is marginally bigger.
If I have given the impression that this Jubilee Quartet recital gets better as it goes along, I think that is fair. The recording achieved by producer Matthew Bennett and engineer Dave Rowell in Potton Hall is excellent.