The Vertavo Quartet played the bold introductory chords of Opus 71/1 firmly but slightly softened the last of the five before launching into the rich melodies of the first movement. This was a foretaste of the musicians’ approach to phrasing in all the works; themes were shaped with care, sometimes tapering the close of melodies before graciously introducing the following idea. This characteristic engendered the most meaningful of interpretations, enhancing but never imposing upon Haydn’s intentions. The following Theme and Variations movement was subtly phrased and the reading of the Minuet typified the Vertavo’s approach to that movement in all the pieces – a refreshing moderate pace, each Trio being given added expressivity without diverging from the basic tempo. The multi-themed Finale, which has a surprising extra idea used only when leading back to the repeat, was powerfully rendered.
The less-intense Opus 55/3 was also phrased with care and again there was a noble Minuet and a forceful finale. In the opening Allegro a brief, mysterious rising phrase appears; it has a remarkable similarity to one in the slow movement of Opus 103 and momentarily throws a dark shadow on this outgoing music. The Adagio cantabile was taken very slowly; forward motion was not a feature of the reading. Maybe this is not the strongest of Haydn’s creations but somehow it did not hold the attention.
The performance of the unfinished Opus 103 was superb. We know that Haydn was losing his strength at the time but here the mature composer reaches forward and seems to anticipate the depth of the final Quartets of his pupil Beethoven. The Vertavo members’ interpretation was supremely sensitive, the Andante grazioso being a moving experience and the ideally paced Minuet had consoling power, the sudden fortes were ideally strong without ever compromising beauty of tone.
Opus 74/2 suitably dispelled the existing air of sadness – an unusual commencement here, the first eight bars of this Allegro spirituoso are never repeated – Haydn may have established the rules for String Quartets but he was also forever breaking them. The harmonious Variations movement certainly held the concentration and following another ideally paced Minuet we were given a rousing Presto Finale. It is based on a simple tune and the Vertavo view of it is one of forceful, driving excitement. There was one moment of indulgence: a humorous slowing before the fermatas that precede the coda but it is easily forgiven because it heightened the exuberance of this delightful piece.