In Sparkling Haydn Quartets, Plenty of Fooling Around  

 United StatesUnited States Haydn: Orion String Quartet, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Rose Studio, Lincoln Center, New York City. 26.2.2015 (BH)

Haydn:  Quartet in F minor, Op. 20, No. 5 (1772)
Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 33. No. 2, “The Joke” (1781)
Quartet in C major for Strings, Op. 50, No. 2 (1787)
Quartet in F major for Strings, Op. 77, No. 2 (1799)

Haydn’s ability to entertain should not be underestimated. On a night which for many listeners was filled with winter ennui, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center gave the Orion String Quartet room to entertain, in four quartets spanning the composer’s career.

The result was a refreshing spray of accuracy, sensitivity and humor. In Op. 20, No. 5, short bow strokes made the Finale: Fuga a due soggetti even more effective, coupled with well-timed, dramatic changes in volume. In Op. 50, No. 2, the two violins found humor in the Menuetto, when phrases seem to resolve at different speeds. In both, the players combined exceptional balance and intonation to bring Haydn’s brilliance to life.

But the high points came at the end of each half. To end the evening, Haydn’s final quartet, Op. 77, No. 2, showed the composer’s maturity in finding even more sophisticated harmony, especially in the second movement Menuetto, containing what Richard Rodda described in his notes as “exalted foolery.” And as the complex Finale progressed, I scribbled, “So much fun!”

Before intermission came Op. 33, No. 2, which is not subtitled “The Joke” for no reason, though it takes awhile for the laugh-out-loud humor to appear. Some rustic and gutsy playing in the first movement made a fine preface to Steven Tenenbom (viola) and Timothy Eddy (cello), poignant as they began the Largo. But finally the Presto appeared, with its addictive skipping rhythm, and that joke. Todd and Daniel Phillips—first and second violinists, respectively—used the timing of expert stand-up comics to announce the ending again, and again—and again.

Bruce Hodges

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