HAYDN Joseph, String Quartet Op.20 No.2

Capriccio. Adagio 
Minuet. Allegretto 
Fuga a quattro soggetti 

By the time Haydn composed his six Op.20 String Quartets, in 1772, he had developed an innovative mastery of the form. In terms of novel designs and textures, these quartets are truly remarkable. Musicologist Donald Francis Tovey, writing about the Op.20 Quartets as a whole, described them as follows: ‘Every page of the six quartets of Op.20 is of historic and aesthetic importance … there is perhaps no single … opus in the history of instrumental music which has achieved so much’. He and others have argued convincingly that in this set of quartets – and the Op.33 set that followed nine years later – Haydn single-handedly defined what the medium of the quartet was capable of achieving. 


The first movement of Op.20 No.2 opens with the main theme on the cello, playing above the accompanment by the viola, and closely shadowed by the second violin, while the first violin plays nothing for the first six bars of the piece. In the development section, cello and first violin seem engaged in a kind of musical combat, while the movement almost fizzles out on a pianissimo cadence. After an austere unison opening, the slow movement, in C minor (itself quite unusual in a major key work), is again notable for the way in which the main ideas are shared between the parts, with the cello again taking a lead with the melodic ideas while the other strings play hushed semiquavers. But Haydn soon turns this movement into a turbulent musical drama – including violent contrasts between loud and soft – before introducing a gentler theme in E flat major on the first violin, accompanied by smooth quavers in the second violin and more animated, complex figuration in the viola. This movement leads without interruption into the Minuet, back in the home key of C major, but full of chromatic colouring, rhythmic ambiguities and unusual drones. The fugal finale on multiple themes is marked ‘sempre sotto voce’ (always hushed) – until the final outburst of the main fugue theme brings the work to its conclusion. This is another most unusual feature of this remarkable piece – a work of great beauty and power that is positively bristling with inventiveness. 


© Nigel Simeone 


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