Haydn qts FF004

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
String Quartets Op76 Nos 1-6 ‘Erdödy’ Hob.III: 75-80
Quatuor Akos
rec. 2022, Auditorium Eric et Sylvie Boissonnas, Flaine, France
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
NoMadMusic FF004 [2 CDs: 131]

This young quartet (founded in 2015) bring great freshness and an appropriately zany sense of humour to these, the most played of all the Haydn quartets. At times this exuberance can bring a sense that they are risking rhythmic instability but that seems to be the price to pay for such spontaneity. The trio of the G major quartet (Op76No.1) teeters but like a tightrope walker toying with the spectators never loses balance.

Their approach is agreeably free of the mannerisms that sometimes afflict historically informed performances though some might find the rough edges of the famous theme of the Emperor quartet’s slow movement a little bracing like a brisk dip in the North Sea in March. Generally speaking, these aren’t especially sackcloth clad accounts intent on making Haydn sound like Schoenberg.

Whilst they utterly refute the idea of a pipe and slipper Haydn, the Akos Quartet aren’t above charming the listener. Minuets flow but aren’t made to gallop and trios have an appropriately folkie demeanour- try that of the B flat Op76 No4 and you can hear that Haydn, by this point in his career a musical superstar, never forgot his rural roots even as his compositions reached new heights of sophistication.

The issue of taste is a crucial one too in both Haydn and Mozart and there is a nice balance struck here between innovative effects and elegant manners, humour and seriousness where others such as the marvellous Chiaroscuro Quartet play everything thrillingly until the pips squeak. This new set shows that that isn’t the only way with these quartets and that a sense of decorum doesn’t mean dull and well mannered.

The same point could be made about the selection of tempi. As in the final section of the finale of the same Op76 No4 quartet they can be as fleet footed as any of their rivals but they include a wide diversity of speeds – they aren’t afraid to amble when the music calls for it as in the finale of Op76 No.6. Where others take the tempo marking allegro spirituoso to mean as fast as possible the Akos have a different take on what Haydn might have had in mind by spirited – which makes the experience of listening to the whole set seem richly varied instead of fifty shades of fast. The mania for making adagios fast seems to have passed them by. The ‘cantabile e mesto’ Largo of Op76No.5 is quite sublime in its spaciousness and is both singing and tinged with sadness (as that score marking asks for).

To bring this review full circle it is a combination of freshness and wit that make these performances stand out – in the final variation of the opening movement of Op76 No6 they sound like someone struggling and failing to suppress a fit of the giggles. As so often with Haydn, such lively humour serves to open the way to the harmonic extravagances of the aptly named Fantasia slow movement that follows it. The Akos understand the way one succeeds the other and handle it with seamless grace.

The programme notes by the performers are quirky enough in French to have outfoxed a translator who clearly hasn’t quite mastered English – some of it would border on the incomprehensible without the French to make sense of it – but this is a minor blemish. In the more important matter of the sound quality, the production values are of the highest standards.

There is almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to top string quartets at the moment – and it is doubly welcome that so many of them are embracing the Haydn quartets. This is my first encounter with the Akos Quartet but I hope to hear a lot more from them as this set has provided me with as much pleasure as any Haydn quartet recording for some time. The infectious verve of their playing has had me coming back to them again and again.

David McDade

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