Recorded at the Hungaroton Studios in Rottenbiller Stree, Budapest from 28th to 31st March, 1989 and 4th to 5th May 1989
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Joseph Haydn was as prolific as any eighteenth century composer, his fecundity a matter, in good part, of the nature of his employment and the length of his life. Born in 1732 in the village of Rohrau, the son of a wheelwright, he was recruited to the choir of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna at the age of eight, later earning a living as best he could as a musician in the capital and making useful acquaintances through his association with Metastasio, the Court Poet, and the composer Nicola Porpora.
In 1759, after some eight years of teaching and free-lance performance, whether as violinist or keyboard-player, Haydn found greater security in a position in the household of a Bohemian nobleman, Count Morzin, as director of music, wintering in Vienna and spending the summer on the Count's estate in Bohemia, where an orchestra was available. In 1760 Haydn married the eldest daughter of a wig-maker, a match that was to bring him neither children nor solace, and by the following year he had entered the service of Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy as deputy to the old Kapellmeister Gregor Werner, who had much fault to find with his young colleague. In 1762 Prince Paul Anton died and was succeeded by his brother Prince Nikolaus, who concerned himself with the building of the great palace of Esterhaza. Four years later Kapellmeister Werner died, and Haydn assumed the full duties of the position, spending the larger part of the year at Esterhaza and part of the winter at Eisenstadt, where his first years of service to the Esterhazy family had passed.
Haydn's responsibilities at Esterhaza were manifold. As Kapellmeister he was in full charge of the musicians employed by the Prince, writing music of all kinds, and directing performances both instrumental, operatic and liturgical. This busy if isolated career came to an end with the death of Prince Nikolaus in 1790. From then onwards Haydn had greater freedom, while continuing to enjoy the title and emoluments of his position as Kapellmeister to the Prince's successors.
Haydn's release from his immediate responsibilities allowed him, in 1791, to accept an invitation to visit London, where he provided music for the concerts organised by Johann Peter Salomon. His considerable success led to a second visit in 1794. The following year, at the request of the new Prince Esterhazy, who had succeeded his elder brother in 1794, he resumed some of his earlier duties as Kapellmeister, now in Eisenstadt and in Vienna, where he took up his own residence until his death in 1809.
Haydn was to write some 83 string quartets over a period of forty years. The form itself is closely associated with that of the classical symphony as it developed from the middle of the eighteenth century in Mannheim and elsewhere in south Germany, Austria and Bohemia, emerging from its origins in the Baroque sonata. Haydn's achievement is as remarkable in quality as in quantity, his own development following those of the century, reflecting in the 1780s the influence of his younger contemporary Mozart, who expressed his own debt to Haydn in a set of quartets dedicated to him. In old age he seemed unwilling to follow the uncouth example of the Great Moghul, his recalcitrant pupil Beethoven, whose Opus 18 Quartets were published in 1801. Haydn's last quartet, started in 1803, remained unfinished, his major achievement in the genre ending with the century.
The set of six quartets that Haydn dedicated to Count Erdody was completed in 1797 and published two years later. The Count, who had married in 1796 a woman who was to become a particularly enthusiastic supporter of Beethoven, belonged to a group of noblemen that included Count Apponyi, to whom Haydn dedicated the Opus 74 Quartets, and Prince Lobkowitz, to whom he dedicated the last two completed Quartets, Opus 77. It was to the last that Beethoven dedicated the six Opus 18 Quartets in what must have seemed a deliberate challenge to the older composer.
The fourth of the Op. 76 quartets has won in England the descriptive title 'The Sunrise", an ingenuous comment on the opening of the first movement, in which the first violin opens with an ascending phrase over the sustained chord of the other instruments, its counterpart the descending phrase later proposed by the cello. The E flat slow movement, like the first, has suggestions of a sadder world. It is followed by a Minuet in which the same semitone interval retains the motivic importance it has had hitherto. The final sustained notes of viola and cello continue as an accompaniment to the opening bars of the Trio, with its excursion into the ominous key of F minor. The final Rondo has a first episode in the tonic minor, playful use of conterpoint and a final varied re-appearance of the principal theme as the movement speeds towards its close.
The gentle first movement of the Quartet in D major, Opus 76 No.5, is in the form of a theme and variations, a D minor version of the theme from the cello giving scope for contrapuntal imitation, a procedure continued in the rather faster conclusion of the movement. The F sharp major Largo, which lies at the heart of the work, opens with its principal theme announced by the first violin and goes on to explore remoter keys before it is done. The characteristically inventive Minuet has a contrasting D minor Trio that starts with a running figure in the cello, followed briefly by the other instruments. The quartet ends with a movement, the beginning of which wittily anticipates its ending, the pairs of chords of the first figure serving purposes of modulation as the movement makes its lively progress.
The remarkable E flat Quartet, the last of the Erdody set, has a first movement in the form of a theme and variations, ending with an energetic fugue. This is followed by a Fantasia, an Adagio, apparently in B major or, to the ear, C flat major, but at first without a key signature, and passing through various keys, adjusted enharmonically, although not simultaneously in all parts. The intensity of the slow movement relaxes in a scherzo-like Minuet, the contrasting Alternativo, its title a reference to much earlier practice, based on a cunning imitative use of the descending and ascending scale. The last movement opens with a figure of rhythmic ambiguity which dominates, in one form or another, what follows. Here, as throughout the Erdody Quartets, there is the subtlest use of the technical resources of counterpoint, learning that Haydn, unlike Beethoven, wore lightly. Haydn's masterly command of technique and fund of inventiveness amply justify his contemporary reputation as the greatest living composer of the day.