Authenticity Breeds Originality in the Hands of the London Haydn Quartet

12/10/2015

 Haydn:  London Haydn Quartet [Catherine Manson (first violin), Michael Gurevich (second violin), James Boyd (viola), Jonathon Manson (cello)], Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 29/09/15 (LJ).

Haydn: String Quartet in F major, Op. 17, No. 2
Haydn: String Quartet in F minor, Op. 55, No. 2
Haydn: String Quartet in G major, Op. 54, No. 1

The London Haydn Quartet has gained a formidable reputation as one of the leading period instrument string quartets. Their dedication to Haydn and series of Haydn recordings on the Hyperion label also positions them as the principal chamber group specialising in Haydn currently touring worldwide. Such familiarity with their repertoire was evident as they called the quartets ‘friends’ when speaking to the audience at Cardiff’s RWCMD. Because some consider their focus on Haydn narrow, I offer a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche to suggest that such specialism and dedication can only be admired when directed towards a composer of such versatility and range:

So far as genius can exist in a man who is merely virtuous, Haydn had it. He went as far as the limits that morality sets to the intellect.

Picking out the extremes of Haydn’s character, the London Haydn Quartet performed the String Quartet in F major, Op. 17 No. 2, String Quartet in F minor, Op. 55, No. 2 and String Quartet in G, Op. 54, No. 1.

Haydn composed his F major, Op. 17 No. 2 quartet with violinist Luigi Tomasini in mind. Here, Haydn’s melodic first-violin part is woven into the three other components of the quartet. Employing wit and adding a devilish sense of humour into this piece, the London Haydn Quartet sounded effortless and comfortably (though not complacently) at home.

What was immediately apparent was the excellent communication between each of the musicians. Violinists Catherine Manson and Michael Gurevich, violist James Boyd and cellist Jonathon Manson demonstrated their understanding and appreciation of each other’s styles and tendencies with an intuition that only comes from belonging to a quartet for over a decade. Catherine Manson’s intensity and focus was a stalwart driving force. Her tone resounded with clarity and purity. The two violinists and violist were supported by Jonathon Manson’s unwavering perfectionism. Gurevich was audacious and full of gesture which was mirrored by Boyd. As a quartet the four musicians complimented and contrasted each other stylistically to produce a layered and well-rounded sound.

Generally believed to be Haydn’s best quartet, the Op. 55, No. 2 in F minor (also known as ‘The Razor’) moves from a leisurely first movement into a fast second (contradicting the usual arrangement). In the first movement, the quartet sounded genuinely Baroque. The second offered Jonathon Manson an opportunity to demonstrate his exquisite texture and pitch-perfect exactitude. The third movement relaxes the tension of the previous two, though still makes demands on its players with its contrapuntal inventiveness. In the final movement, the London Haydn Quartet was superb at battling out the F major/minor jostles, along with the return of the remote key of G flat. Ending with a sunny beam of optimistic radiance, the musicians resonated with an earthy richness which was enhanced by their gut stringed instruments.  

The Quartet in G, Op. 54, No. 1, written with virtuoso violinist Jonathan Tost in mind, was a brilliant end to the evening. Catherine Manson demonstrated her own bravura (her runs were both notably clean and fast) as she took on Haydn’s fiendishly showy writing for first violin. With its constant train-chugging motion steaming ahead, the London Haydn Quartet performed the piece with a natural dynamic emphasis that only an intimate knowledge of the work can create.    

Their style was utterly classical. It consisted of sprightly coquettishness and serious tension. With this simultaneously traditional and progressive voice, The London Haydn Quartet successfully carved out an intimate setting for profound and personal music making to be enjoyed and remembered. Last year the New York Times claimed that: “The musicians imbued both works with myriad details of shading and contrast, and beautifully calibrated phrasing”. From the beginning to end of this concert, the quartet’s passion for Haydn’s string quartets came through just as marvellously. Their enjoyment even sparked enthusiasm amongst the audience.

Lucy Jeffery

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