SQS: Haydn String Quartets #12-16, op. 9

performed by the Buchberger Quartet

The opus 9 quartets, with links to performances of the works (not by Buchberger), are as follows:

We did quartet #11 (op. 9 no. 4) yesterday, as that Dm quartet is hailed by many as the world’s first great string quartet, in incomparable contrast to the inconsequential nature of the divertimenti. The other quartets in this opus number are more often neglected.

As a matter of convention, we shall henceforth use # when speaking of the sequence of the quartet relative to the composer’s entire oeuvre, and “no.” when referring to its place in an opus number, e.g. yesterday’s quartet is Haydn’s string quartet #11, but op. 9 no. 4. Forget FHE and Hoboken. I might not always follow these conventions, but I intend to, even though no. 11 looks so much better than #11. Or maybe I’ll do “op. 9/4” instead of “op. 9 no. 4.” Some people’s catalogues…

String Quartet no. 12 in C major opens decidedly less captivatingly than no. 11, but is still head and shoulders above the divertimenti (I needn’t continue saying that; everything is). Interestingly, you’ll see the orders in which they were (ostensibly) composed is different from the order in which they were published. This work is the earliest of the batch. Maybe the others will be more promising. The highlight for me is the longest movement, the third, marked adagio. While it’s not terribly interesting or memorable, it feels quartet-ish, there’s expression and contrast, and even has a more pained sounding moment toward the end, before the main theme returns and closes out the movement. This quartet also shows the four members of the ensemble working as (at least more) equal partners, which is a thing that worked so well in no. 11. The final movement, marked presto, is quite nice. There seem to be a lot of ideas here that could go places, and ends rather abruptly.

String Quartet no. 13 in G major opens cheerily, and is even charming, but lacks the depth of the eleventh. The minuet isn’t boring but is rather unmemorable, and the same for the largo, a bit…. whiny, for me… There are only a few passages with good deep cello to round out the ensemble. The finale seems just above the level of interestingness of background music, but overall the piece is bright, almost too bright.

String Quartet No. 14 in E major begins and, no offense to the composer or the performers, but it sounds like a middle school piece, as in “this is a piece constructed from the notes you guys can play.” The opening violin melody is so straightforward as to be bland. I have already lost interest. Where were we? The movement ended, and there’s a minuet. Same. The adagio, however, seems to offer the most interesting opening, promise for having something to say. The opening was tense there, for a minute. It’s by far the highlight of the quartet. The finale is really just more of the same, to me, if not a bit more lively.

String Quartet No. 15 in B major is no. 5 in this series, the first we’re discussing that was (ostensibly) written after the highly delightful eleventh quartet (no. 4) in this group. Is it better? Maybe there’s just something about the magic of the minor-key quartet. This one seems to have more togetherness, or spirit, with the orchestra as a whole, but not as inspired as no. 11. I would say I can enjoy the minuet; it has life. The largo cantabile third movement might be the highlight again for this one here. The finale is not terribly different from many of the others in this set. But it sounds like we’re moving in the direction, at least, staying above the level of background elevator music. Not awful, but doesn’t blow me away or convince me to keep listening for terribly long. The piece ends politely.

String Quartet No. 16 in A major begins excitingly and shows quite a bit of contrast from even just the opening bars, but is somehow ineffective. It strikes as interesting, but doesn’t really stay that way. It’s at least busy. Again, the adagio seems to be the most inspired movement, except for what comes next. The finale is exceptionally short, at less than 90 seconds, but is one of the greatest things we’ve heard from Papa Haydn so far, in my opinion. Short, sweet, and full of energy, a nice way to end the opus 9 quartets.

And with that we’re done. I’d be curious to hear if anyone has insight into these pieces. I am more than open to hearing anything that would make me take a second or third pass at these and discover a gem here or there, but in summary, they are (like most everything) light years ahead of the divertimenti a quattro, but lack the inspiration of op. 9/4, the eleventh quartet. I haven’t decided yet how we’ll go about the op. 17 quartets, but in general, all the research that I’ve done on these earliest works has produced very little, and what has turned up has been the general sentiment that there’s nothing special here. I can only assume that is to say that what’s to come is of true genius. We shall see.

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