Do we really need ANOTHER recording of……..?
Part 1 The theory
Fill in your pet hate here, another Beethoven Symphony cycle, another Mozart Piano concerto, another Tchaikovsky Pathetique, Rach 3…..and here comes another disc of Haydn string quartets.
MP's esteemed editor is a champion of the extensive, not intensive approach to listening; I'll fight the opposite corner. He would rather hear sixty works new to him, I sixty versions of Die Winterreise (I even know someone who owns a hundred versions) .
His initial reaction to this disc – and in analogous cases, such as the Ysaye's Beethoven Op 135 – is to say ‘ This is fair enough; but why don't you perform / record something new / rare / unknown? ' Mine is to be reassured that Op76 No 2 features on my long list' of ‘the only 50 string quartets I like' and even on the short one of ‘the only 25 I really, really like and cannot hear often enough.' But of course, he makes me listen to everything unfamiliar, and I, by writing as often as possible about my restricted, prized personal canon, encourage him back to new versions of familiar things, if only for him to be outraged at my prejudices.
I don't argue that all should think like me. I accept entirely the argument of the point once put to me with great cogency by the pianist Sarah Nicolls, who champions the contemporary repertoire with absolute integrity. So many play the mainstream pieces, so much has been said already, the artist's individuality and personal contribution may well be more satisfyingly expressed in what is new or unfamiliar.
Let me defend not my own taste, but that of the recording musician. Recording demands familiarity with the repertoire; to have something to say in the face of the self-consciousness induced by the microphone, you must know and love what you're playing. A deep personal response is the best, and why should that not be to what is, in clichéd terms, the ‘greatest' examples of the repertoire? Why should one have to make a ‘world premiere recording CD,' when what one actually wants is to play the Pathetique and the Moonlight? What sort of artistic integrity would that be? Indeed, in some cases one suspects that artists have paid their dues by making unusual recordings (look at someone so technically and musically gifted as Marc-Andre Hamelin) in order to arrive at the position of fame and artistic freedom, where they have enough power to be allowed to choose the mainstream (his programme in his forthcoming QEH recital – Beethoven Op 109 and 110, Schubert D960.) If anything, one must know what one records better than what one performs; that is a major commitment of time and energy simply for novelty's sake. Why be different, if what you actually respond to yourself is more of the same?
Furthermore, great music, like all great art, has a myriad of detail and is open to a myriad interpretations. Shakespeare, reinterpreted for our time, is ever fresh and new, why not Beethoven? I may learn more from Fischer-Dieskau's various Winterreises than from Joe Bloggs' but I would hope to learn something from each version; the work itself has so much to say.
There is of course a caveat, two even. You must indeed have something interesting to say when you play mainstream repertoire and you must be prepared to measure up against the likes of Richter, von Karajan or Heifetz. Equally, listeners will know the works well.
A composer no-one has ever performed or recorded, where there is no prejudgment in each music lover's head of how it should sound, is by definition far more forgiving. And that's even before I consider that ‘better' music is harder to master and interpret, is simply more demanding. Bach and Mozart will really find you out, expose every flaw; their music so perfectly shaped that the least imbalance sticks out a mile.
Yes, when I was a student, nothing was more fashionable (and attractive to me) than a kind of cultural iconoclasm, the reader, listener, critic was all, the author, intention, tradition nothing. When all is in the eye of the beholder, outrageous positions become defensible. Shakespeare is not better than a laundry list and the Gulf War did not take place. Ceci n'est pas une pipe. An infinite regress quickly arrived, and now, outside the ivory tower and in the real world, life is too short to argue the toss. I can't be bothered to spend years justifying or even demonstrating the greatness of Mozart and Beethoven. They are great to me, most others are not, indeed not even good, and I'd rather spend my time with the great. I'd rather argue the toss about a single bar of Op 110 than listen to 110 new pieces. If you play quartets, you surely must have a strong allegiance to Haydn; it must be plausible to commit your time to him when you make your first recording.
Part 2 The CD review
Part 1 was written before I had sight and sound of the Carducci String Quartet's debut recording, of three Haydn string quartets, Op 20/4 Op 50/6(Frog) Op 76/2 (Fifths). My editor commented only that these interpretations hold their own with the competition; I hope they do, and that they don't let my side of the argument down. You must have something interesting to say and you must be prepared to measure up against the Quartetto Italiano, the Amadeus, the Aeolians and the Quartett Mosaiques…..
How do you like your Haydn? Steeped in the comforting familiarity of the classical style? Or constantly reminding you that it is the developmental apex of something far more repetitive and reductive?
This new disc from the Carduccis offers the first; it has neither the sheen and attack of the Emerson's curiously-named Haydn Project, nor the searching quality of the recent Quatuor Mosaiques boxes. But its virtues are solid, consistency of approach and sensitivity to the style.
Haydn may be the composer of Sturm and Drang, he may be proof to us that Romanticism, applied to music only from Beethoven on, was an intellectual movement with firm roots in the eighteenth century. But these Carducci performances also remind us that, unlike our stereotype of the tortured composer, he was a stable, successful man with an essentially happy life.
Haydn's Op 20 is a landmark in string quartet writing – its emergence as a musical form of seriousness and profundity. The veteran recording from the Aeolians remains pre-eminent among complete sets; its sense of pace, poise and cadence still unsurpassed. The late lamented Emmanuel Hurwitz joined the quartet precisely because that enterprise was his incentive. The Aeolians' Op 20/4, or their Op 50/6, sounds exactly like that- innovatory, questing, with hidden depths. From the sweet tone and modern recorded sound of the Carduccis, we have the opposite sensation, the reassurance of the classical style. One approach aspires towards symphony, the other to divertimento.
By Op 76, we have reached some of Haydn's greatest works; in the Carduccis hands the opening of Op 76/2 is faultless, stylistically engaging and again with characteristic sweetness; but the entry of the second subject involves a relatively unconvincing gear change, and there are some moment of uncertain intonation in the very difficult passages late in the development and again in the passagework of the finale. Again, there is no sense that Haydn was the composer of storm and stress, no ‘witchiness' in the nicknamed minuet, no sense of aggression in the faster movements.
The Carduccis proudly say on their website that this is the first of their artists' own label releases. In recent years, such labels have become common, making a virtue out of necessity because few artists are now paid to make the CDs in the first place, but (possibly as one cause) making them has become steadily easier.
Making one's own producing decisions is both good and bad. I wish the Carduccis had gone for a fuller booklet, especially as there is plenty of interesting material on their website.
More seriously, I hope the recorded sound on the disc was their own conscious choice, because, while very faithful, it is also very middle-heavy, with the first violin far more recessed and less prominent than almost any other quartet recording I can remember. I personally find the disc has a good deal more energy, presence and vividness when the equalisation is changed.
This CD does not represent any strikingly individual reading of Haydn quartets; but the Carduccis can rightly argue that this is their first complete studio recording and they have shown enough to suggest their interpretations will deepen and mature satisfyingly through the years.
Ying Chang (March 2007)