Smithson String Quartet

Haydn: Strings Quartets Op. 9/4, Op. 17/3 & Op. 17/5

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Haydn: Strings Quartets Op. 9/4, Op. 17/3 & Op. 17/5 Review

by James Manheim

The Smithson String Quartet, otherwise known as the Smithsonian Quartet, existed from 1982 to 1996 but was part of a longer tradition of chamber music making at that august American institution, much of which has had a certain family resemblance. With characteristically sepulchral art-gallery sound as part of the deal, the group's performances are technically top-notch, sober, and a bit reverential. This group of Haydn quartet performances was recorded in 1986 but, for unspecified reasons, never released. Intense emotion and most of the flashes of Haydn's humor are ruled out; the minuets go out of their way to avoid getting into a triple-meter groove that would bring out the unexpected twists. In their place is excellent ensemble, persuasive long-range architecture (desirable in these early Haydn works, which have hints of cyclical construction), and a strong overall feel for the dramatic expansion in scope these quartets, published in the early 1770s, represented in the course of Haydn's career. The opening String Quartet in D minor, Op. 9, No. 4 , Hob. 3/22, maintains an impressive level of tension throughout. All four of the quartet's members, most notably Dutch early music veteran Jaap Schröder on first violin, had backgrounds in the second generation of the historical performance movement, and the music on the album has a quality often found in the work of Baroque specialists who move forward into the Classical era: they make Haydn sound a little like Bach. But the detail and the overall proficiency illuminate many of the composer's thought processes in unusual ways. Booklet notes, which do an informative job of situating the pieces within both Haydn's quartet output and his career as a whole, are in English only.

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