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THE UNBUTTONED OPUS
The two collections of three Quartets known as opp. 54 and 55 actually make up a single group of six Quartets, according to the formula observed by Haydn since Opus 9, in every case save two (Opus 42, which remained unique, and Opus 77, interrupted by the composer’s loss of his faculties). But in 1788, when the present group was in gestation, Haydn was at the peak of his art and would compose a large number of additional quartets, almost all of which rank amongst the most accomplished.
Meeting Mozart certainly constituted a shock for Haydn. But the fact remains that he would compose no more piano concertos – if ever he wrote any comparable to those of his younger colleague – or operas. Similarly, nor would he try his hand at the string quintet either. The Quartet, however, was the genre in which he continually showed himself most original and to which he would devote himself throughout his life. Impressed by the famous six quartets that Mozart dedicated to him, he responded with the Opus 50, which seems free of any Mozartean influence, then by the present group and the Opus 64 to come, three diversified collections that affirm Haydn’s supremacy in the genre.
For the pieces that, to him, seemed to be the most original part of his oeuvre, Haydn worked fairly slowly. That explains the decade separating Opus 33 from Opus 20, then the six years that elapsed before the appearance of Opus 50. To the contrary, Opus 54/55 saw the day six months later, and everything suggests that, for once, Haydn worked in haste and under stress. While Opus 50 demonstrates sovereign mastery of form, the present opus manifests a desire for experimentation and exploration that one might expect to find more in those works for which Beethoven would later coin the term ‘unbuttoned’, those in which the creator gives free rein to his fantasy, without apparent constraint. The second quartet, for example, has no real slow movement but a rhapsodic fantasy in gypsy style, and the finale is an adagio, barely interrupted, towards the end, by a short presto section before the return of the adagio.
With the present recording, the Complete Collection project has reached the two-thirds point, with 39 of the projected 58 Quartets henceforth available. Each new album of the FESTETICS QUARTET confirms this ensemble’s supremacy, while underscoring the specificity of each work. Technical mastery, tonal beauty, modesty of expression, intensity of the discourse and the study of sources make this vision a point of no-return, from which ideas will never again be what they were before. This is a rereading that opens up new horizons, reducing conventional performances to a summary, rather simplistic approach that is henceforth obsolete.
MICHEL BERNSTEIN Translated by John Tyler Tuttle