November 13, 2007 — Published on Tuesdays

Franz Joseph Haydn

Haydn: At Last in Plain Sight

By Michelle Dulak Thomson

Is there a body of acknowledged masterpieces more unevenly explored than the Haydn string quartets? It’s taken as a given that they’re “great music” (the later ones, at least), but what fraction are actually played with any regularity, and how many people know the neglected ones even well enough to judge whether they ought to be neglected?

As something of a Haydn partisan, I find it tempting to put the relative unfamiliarity of most of the quartets down to inexplicable and unjust player (or listener) prejudice. This, though, is unfair. In fact the reasons are disappointingly obvious and largely innocent. The first, and main, problem with the Haydn quartets is the same problem presented by the Bach cantatas: There are too danged many of them and no obvious place to start listening to or performing all of them.

The mature Mozart quartets and the Beethoven quartets are few enough that players and listeners have little difficulty conceiving of them, getting to know them, as individual works. With Haydn, we have several dozen pieces, mostly grouped in threes and sixes — when listed en masse, apparently nothing but a dauntingly long list of opuses and numbers and keys. It is easy — too easy — to slip into regarding them not as works worthy of individual interest, but as exemplars of a type.

The Path of Least Resistance

And it is “as exemplars of a type” that Haydn quartets have long filled a useful, if utilitarian, role on string-quartet programs. If the typical quartet recital has one overriding rule of design, it is that any new or notably abrasive piece will be placed in the middle of the program so that it can’t be avoided by arriving late or leaving early. But a second principle almost as forceful has it that the first piece on the program should be brief, “light,” easily intelligible, and preferably 18th-century. Something by design not too taxing for either ears or hands, something suitable for warming up on before the program’s heavy lifting (its real music, if you like) begins.

Other things can be fitted into that slot. (Early Mozart often fills the bill; sometimes later Mozart, though most of those are a little long for the job; sometimes Boccherini or early Schubert.) Still, Haydn is the most usual choice, the path of least resistance. And not a random Haydn quartet either, but more often than not one of a select half-dozen or so, pieces that because of a memorable nickname, a particular audience-pleasing movement, or both, have made it onto the list of useful pieces everyone knows.

That list contains, to be sure, several of Haydn’s best quartets. But relative to the quartets as a group, these most famous ones tend to be more regular, less abrupt, less puzzling than the norm. Less purely strange, and therefore better suited to a kind of playing in which smoothness, grace, blend, and balance are the key values. I’ve heard an awful lot of concert-opening Haydn quartet performances in which those surface attributes weren’t merely the foundation on which a considered interpretation was built, but actually all you got. Responding in some sort of individuated way to the piece, such performances seemed to say, was for later music; Haydn was expected to take care of itself.

Now Seriously …

Lately, it seems to me, this state of things has been changing for the better. Haydn, mirabile dictu, is beginning to be taken seriously. You can see it, partly, in what gets programmed and recorded. Young ensembles, which generally take a Haydn quartet or two into their repertoires early on, are sometimes plumping not for a nicknamed “fave” but for something well off the beaten path (the wild and wacky Op. 54/2, say, or a piece from Op. 20, or Op. 55, or Op. 71).

Older quartets are rooting around in Haydn, too. I’m thinking, for example, of the Emerson Quartet’s grandly named “Haydn Project” of a few years back, which encompassed seven quartets from a variety of opus-number sets. Meanwhile, at least two newish European period-instrument quartets are in the course of preparing and performing the entire cycle in connection with the 2009 bicentennial of Haydn’s death.

But it’s more than that — it’s the way players are increasingly approaching Haydn today, with a degree of intensity and alertness and specificity quite incompatible with “letting the music take care of itself.” Often the first thing you’ll notice in such performances, interestingly, is that the players are making much of Haydn’s humor. They will point up the famous outright “jokes” with glee, they’ll add insinuating or flippant or mock-tragic inflections at whim, they’ll seize on a prominent leap or an unexpected repetition or a quirky rhythm as an occasion for horseplay. I’ve heard sheer high spirits take over an ordinarily sober-minded ensemble to the extent that the players seemed determined to one-up each other in plain clowning around.

And this is what I call “taking Haydn seriously”? Why, yes. Or rather, to speak more carefully, it’s not possible to mess around with Haydn in this way without perforce taking Haydn much more seriously than a merely clean-and-elegant performance does. You can be grave and graceful and poised in performance without drawing attention to, or indeed yourself noticing, much that happens in the music. You positively cannot be funny in performance without noticing musical events and drawing attention to them; it’s flat-out impossible. Humor insists on attention.

And Haydn, of all composers, lives or dies by attention, by awareness of the music’s detours and hiccups and shocks and strange twists. Playing one of the great Haydn quartets well (or listening to one played well) means being continually startled, repeatedly taken aback. Haydn’s humor is just one line in Haydn’s inventory of surprises, but a telling one. The ensemble that sees Haydn’s jokes well sees also an entire musical landscape bristling with lively and unexpected incident. The ensemble too refined to get silly with a Haydn joke is generally also too refined to feel a five-bar phrase as a jolt, or a sudden forte as a kick in the pants, or a wild modulation as an adventure.

The How of Haydn

Grappling with the irregularities, the feints, the reverses, the gnarly eccentricities of the music, is the key to playing Haydn. The goofiest performance that takes its cue from “the stuff ” in some way takes Haydn seriously. There is only one fundamentally irrelevant way of playing Haydn, and most of us are woefully familiar with it. It is placid, beautiful, sober, smooth, and cultured. It is also (mercifully) a lot less common than it used to be.

But not yet rare enough, to judge by the number of people who still think that Haydn quartets are, at bottom, much of a muchness. Here, for example, is a defense (sort of) of the Haydn quartets that’s less surprising for the content than for the source:

I know there are more than a few in the early music community who find Haydn a bit tame and predictable. To you, I would say only two things: First, the quartets are some of Haydn’s very best music, the full measure of his genius pared down to its bare essentials. Second, to paraphrase a review I read years ago of an Ansel Adams exhibit, if you find cliches in his work, it’s only because he invented them.

That’s the San Francisco Early Music Society’s Jonathan Harris, writing in the May issue of Early Music News (the SFEMS newsletter) in the course of inviting his readers to a SFEMS-sponsored, all-Haydn performance by the New Esterházy Quartet in October. The quartet’s SFEMS program was just one stop on a two-season-long journey through the entire body of Haydn quartets, from the 10 little divertimenti of Opp. 1 and 2 through to the last, incomplete quartet, Op. 103. The series kicked off in July and resumed with a second program in late September (see SFCV’s reviews of the July and September concerts), and its first half continues through June 2008, with one program each month. (The next concert, titled “Haydn and Royalty, Part II” is Nov. 24 at 4 p.m. at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco. See the first season’s schedule for more details.)

I think that Harris, fortunately, is underestimating his audience. “The early music community” — ours in the Bay Area, at any rate — has heard too much of Nic McGegan’s Haydn with Philharmonia Baroque ever to think of the composer as “tame and predictable.” But the New Esterházy project nonetheless could use stronger advocacy. Anyone who wants to hear the definitive retort to the idea of the tame, predictable, cliche-ridden Haydn need only follow this new Bay Area quartet’s activities for the next two years.

An Ambitious Undertaking

The New Esterházy Quartet takes its name from Haydn’s celebrated patron and, less directly, from violinist Jaap Schröder’s pioneering “period” Esterházy Quartet of the 1970s (the new quartet has Schröder’s blessing for the use of the name, I’m told). It comprises four of the Bay Area’s best-known “historical” musicians — violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen — and came together precisely to take on this mammoth project.

Weiss and Martin, at least, are no strangers to vast, ambitious, commemorative string-quartet undertakings, having served as first violinist and violist of the Berkeley Schubert Quartet that performed all of Schubert’s quartet music on period instruments a decade ago in honor of the bicentennial of the composer’s birth. But with due respect to the impossible first-violin parts in the last few Schubert quartets, this Haydn project is an order of magnitude more difficult. And, I suspect, concomitantly more rewarding.

It was clear even from a little “prequel” concert the NEQ gave at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage all the way back in June that we were going to be in for a treat this season. In that miniature program, containing the very first and last of the quartets as well as the one (Op. 42) in the precise middle of the series, the Quartet’s players seemed to relish their assignment in exactly the right way. They were continually and minutely responsive both to the music and to each other, skating over nothing, digging into everything. It was intense playing (yes, even in the frothy “Op. Zero,” a piece omitted from the canonical Op. 1 by accident), but the very reverse of dour.

The NEQ’s programs are not, I’m happy to report, in chronological order, but generally mix pieces of different sets. The Quartet has tried to make the individual concerts thematic, sometimes alighting on an aspect of Haydn’s quartet writing that connects widely separated works. Take December’s “Haydn’s Fugues,” for example, which brings together two of the Op. 20 quartets with their famous fugal finales, the magnificent and underplayed Op. 50/4, with its grim final fugue, and the solitary little Op. 42, whose finale plays with the fugue form without committing itself.

Or June’s “Haydn in Hungary” concert, which tracks Haydn’s fascination with the Zingarese manner from Op. 20/4 through Opp. 33/1 and 54/2, and all the way to Op. 76/2. Other programs pick out the influence of particular players and dedicatees (one devoted to violinist/impresario Johann Peter Salomon’s Haydn quartet concerts during the composer’s London visits, another to the quartets dedicated to violinist/merchant Johann Tost); still others feature pieces preserved in particular early American chamber-music archives that give us a look at the Haydn late-18th-century Americans knew and played. What’s indubitable is that there’s not a dud program among them, nor a concert that fails to include at least one work only Haydn nuts like myself are likely to know. Jump in anywhere; you can’t lose.

And expect some seriously “serious” Haydn playing — surprises and bumps and, yes, silliness intact.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.

©2007 By Michelle Dulak Thomson, all rights reserved.

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