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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