Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
String Quartets, Op. 33 “Russian”, No. 1-3 (1781)
No. 1 in B Minor
No. 2 in E-flat Major (“The Joke”)
No. 3 in C Major (“The Bird”)
Chiaroscuro Quartet
rec. 2021, Menuhin Hall, The Yehudi Menuhin School, Stoke d’Abernon, UK
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
BIS BIS-2588 SACD [61]

When Haydn wrote his six Op. 20 Quartets in 1771, he reached a plateau—and perhaps a roadblock. These works successfully advanced the genre as more than mere entertainment music, even though Haydn still referred to his works as divertimentos. Even more than in his earlier quartets, Op. 20 established the form as a conversation among equals rather than as a showcase for the first violin with support from three accompanists. The quartets also introduced innovative approaches to form along with a greater seriousness of purpose. Three of the quartets, unusually, have fugal finales based on two, three, and even four subjects and unlike any of the other sets of Haydn quartets (mostly six works to a set), Op. 20 features two quartets cast in the minor key, possibly reflecting the composer’s attachment to the Sturm und Drang movement, which influenced a number of Haydn’s symphonies from the late 1760s and early 1770s.

It seems the added seriousness and experimentalism of this set of string quartets moved Haydn to reassess the genre and how he would approach it in the future. Ten years would pass before he assayed the form again, and once more in Op. 33 he reimagined it. One feature new to Haydn’s quartets was the scherzo, with which the composer replaced the usual minuet movement. This replacement was one reason the Op. 33 quartets were nicknamed Gli scherzi, “The Jokes.” (The more familiar nickname “Russian” acknowledges Haydn’s dedication to Tsar Paul I, at whose Vienna apartment the first performance of the quartets took place.) However, a closer look at the individual works shows that the marking Scherzo was itself something of a joke. Only two of the quartets, Nos. 1 and No. 5, have movements evincing the relentless drive and rhythmic irregularity that characterize the classic scherzo. Three of the scherzi in Op. 33 are marked Allegretto, an uncharacteristic tempo for sure and the scherzo of Op. 33 No. 2 is the jokiest of all. It is slow, subdued, more like a “male-voice chorus for instruments” than a dance, as one commentator (Thomas Seedorf) has written. 

The chief reason that Op. 33 No. 2 received the nickname “The Joke” lies in a feature of the last movement. Here, the composer writes a jolly little Presto which seems standard-issue Haydn except that in the reprise of the main theme, he introduces a series of long pauses. After the last pause, Haydn repeats just the first five bars of the main melody, leaving the audience hanging and in the case of at least one future listener, Clara Schumann, laughing out loud.

No joking in the first of the group, No. 1 in B minor. Only the D-major slow movement brings a sense of repose. The first and last movements have all the intensity of those Sturm und Drang symphonies noted above, while the second-movement scherzo, marked Allegro di molto, is Beethovenian before the fact.

Op. 33 No. 3 is less notable perhaps, with a “scherzo” that is really a very comfortable Haydn minuet and a rondo finale that has some of the folk-musical elements Haydn often exploited. The first melody is based on an actual Eastern-European folk song, while the B section in the minor key sounds like rarefied Gypsy fiddling. By the way, the rondo finale was something of an innovation in Haydn quartets. It was becoming a favored ending for music of the day, and Haydn accommodated. 

This quartet, too, has a nickname, “The Bird,” based on the main melody of the first movement. An upward-inflected grace note played by the first violin lends the melody a chirping quality – at least to the imaginative listener.

I’ve highlighted several of the salient features of these quartets that give them their nicknames or are idiosyncratic enough to make them otherwise memorable. The performances by the Chiaroscuro Quartet tend to emphasize these features, which I find a legitimate approach. For example, in the “Joke Quartet” (Op. 33 No. 2) finale, the final reprise of the first bars of the main melody is played sotto voce, emphasizing the unfinished finish that Haydn leaves us with. In the Scherzo of the same piece, the trio section injects a more animated, upbeat quality after the sober music of the Scherzo proper. First Violinist Alina Ibragimova emphasizes this contrast with subtle slides between notes—a comic touch that I haven’t encountered before but which is not unwelcome.

By way of comparison, I listened to the Borodin Quartet on Onyx, a well-regarded interpretation, and the Auryn Quartet on Tacet. Both are somewhat more sober-sided than the Chiaroscuro Quartet but are equally committed to Haydn’s vision. The Tacet recording is a special case, not only because the DVD version I listened to is in true four-channel surround sound (which some listeners will have issues with), but because the Auryn Quartet takes all repeats, the way Haydn’s first audiences would have heard this music. Compared to the performances of both the Borodin and Auryn Quartets, the Chiaroscuro might seem, initially, to emphasize surface brilliance and sheer inventiveness at the expense of musical depth, but listening again (and again) to these performances, I have come to respect their approach. They emphasize the wit and vigor of these wonderful works. As with any excellent music, a variety of approaches is valid. The Chiaroscuro’s is a valid and very entertaining one.

I listened to the recording as a stereo download rather than in the SACD version. The sound, at least in stereo, is a little less resonant, a bit brighter than that accorded the Borodin Quartet. The difference seems to match the disparate approaches to the music the two quartets take. Certainly, this is music important enough to invite a variety of interpretations and I welcome the insight that the Chiaroscuro Quartet brings. Is a recording of the last three Op. 33 quartets in the offing?

Lee Passarella

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