HAYDN Joseph, String Quartet in D, Op.20 No.4

Allegro di molto 
Un poco adagio. Affetuoso 
Allegretto alla zingarese 
Presto scherzando 

The ‘Sun’ string quartets Op.20 (so named because of the sunrise on the title page of an early edition) were composed in 1772 and the manuscript was one of the prize possessions of Johannes Brahms. The English musicologist Donald Francis Tovey wrote that ‘No document in the history of music is more important than Haydn’s Op.20, with its three fugues (which secure autonomy and equality of parts by a return to the old polyphony), its passages of turn-about solo, its experiments in rich and special effects, and, most important of all, its achievements in quite normal quartet-writing such as pervades the remaining forty-odd quartets.’ In short, with Op.20, Haydn established himself as the master of the string quartet genre. Surprisingly, it was another decade before he composed more quartets (Op.33 followed in 1781).  


The String Quartet Op.20 No.4 is one of the less troubled and anguished of the set, but it is endlessly ingenious. The opening is subdued and rather chorale-like until it is interrupted by flashing violin arpeggios, and the whole movement is marked by sudden and unexpected contrasts. The slow movement is a beautiful set of variations in D minor, notable for its harmonic richness and for the distribution of the variations among all four instruments. The Minuet ‘in gypsy style’ has plenty of surprises – a dazzling display of ambiguous cross-rhythms that only settles into regular patterns of triple time in the Trio. The finale is anything but predictable with modulations to strange keys, moments of ‘exotic’ colouring, and a delectably nihilistic ending.  


Nigel Simeone © 2011 


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