Before there was Scrabble, there was the string quartet. The dinner dishes were cleared, and the company retired to the music room to try out the latest chamber-music delectation from the busy presses in Berlin, Vienna or Paris. Music for four — the “Divertimento a Quattro,” as it was first called — was the medium of choice: two violins to sing the main melodies in sweet harmonies, or to argue them in polite counterpoint; the viola to inject a soberer tone; the cello to supply a firm foundation. In or around 1760, the young provincial composer Joseph Haydn, shortly before assuming the position at the Esterhazy palace that would keep him busy for most of his lifetime, knocked out a set of compositions for the summer quartet parties of the Viennese aristocrat Baron Furnberg. They were admired and published as his opuses 1 and 2. Over the next four decades their numbers would grow; more than any other medium in which he worked with astonishing prodigality, Haydn‘s 68 quartets represent a compelling document: of his own growth as a composer, of the growth and enrichment of the musical language we know — not entirely accurately — as “classical,” and of the taste and wisdom of a musical public that could recognize and support Haydn’s unique genius.

Working your way through the 21 discs that contain this legacy on a treasurable new Philips release, you can‘t miss that sense of unfolding, in Haydn’s own abilities and also in the world around him. Prince Esterhazy furnished him with a superlative orchestra, affording Haydn the chance to use its individual members as a laboratory for his own progressive ideas. Beyond that, the prince himself and his entourage became for Haydn the kind of audience today‘s composer would kill for: receptive to experiments and to attempts to expand the boundaries of the established musical forms of the time.

The quartets of his first decade at Esterhazy, published as opuses 9, 17 and 20 — with six quartets in each opus — celebrate that growth in 18 daring forward steps. The four voices take on a distinctive personality; the cello is no longer merely the oompah support, but contributes its own voice. Several of the Opus 20 works end with fugues, intense and passionate, far removed from the earlier sense of “Divertimento a Quattro.” Opus 20 No. 5, in the stark, rarely used key of F minor, ends with a fugue subject that would later turn up as the “Kyrie” in Mozart’s Requiem.

The strength grows; so does the mix of daring progressiveness and superb entertainment in these works. Haydn himself described his Opus 33 quartets as composed in “a completely new and special way,” and that can mean any number of things. These were the six quartets that Mozart claimed as inspiration for his own great set that he dedicated to Haydn; for both sublime composers, they served as a declaration of principle, the right of the genius to experiment and to get away with it. The second in Haydn‘s series has come to be known as “The Joke,” for reasons clear to anyone who has applauded prematurely in the trick silences near the end; the third is “The Bird,” for reasons set forth in the enchanting twittering at the start. Not all, however, is airy persiflage; the first in the Opus 33 series, in the passionate key of B minor, uneasily compresses a tense and personal outcry no less dramatic for its lack of words.

An even greater work among these “middle period” quartets, although not as well-known, is Opus 54 No. 2, music in which everything goes against the formulas of the time in the creation of its own new rules. The slow movement is like nothing else in chamber music of any time: a passionate, rhapsodic solo for the first violin — a reflection, perhaps, of Haydn’s own part-Gypsy heritage — that floats like gusts of steam over a somber landscape. Then comes the minuet, hardly an elegant dance this time, with its crashing, dissonant outcries. And then the finale: not the expected, rollicking rondo but another slow movement, its profound melody briefly interrupted by a skittering intrusion but ending in a vision of infinite, starlit heavens.

The best known of the quartets are the six of Opus 76. They come late in Haydn‘s life, after the two trips to London, after the last of the symphonies. They share much of the eloquence of the orchestral works. The slow movement of No. 5 is again in one of the “difficult” keys — F-sharp major, six sharps — which in Haydn always implies a special profundity; its power to stop the breath links it, perhaps, to its counterpart in the Symphony No. 98. The slow movement of the last of Opus 76 is possibly the most amazing of all. It is, again, in a rare tonality — B major, five sharps — but its harmonic wanderings, chromatic and capricious, are so complex that Haydn withholds a key signature until the end, when the music comes to rest in a final burst of pride in its own power to surprise and delight.

The new recording crowns our own Angeles String Quartet’s Haydn project, which has been taking shape in a concert series at LACMA over the past several years, with one personnel change along the way — second violinist Sara Parkins replacing Steven Miller in 16 of the works. The set lists for $142, although I‘ve seen it online for $126; since the one competition, the Naxos set by the Kodaly Quartet — which also includes Haydn’s quartet version of The Seven Last Words of Christ — lists for $120, the price differential is relatively minor. The Angeles performances are suave, beautifully thought out and altogether creditable, although I do admire the extra intensity of the Kodaly‘s Attila Falvay in rhapsodic passages such as the aforementioned 542. At a time when concern is rising over the future, if any, of serious classical recording, the appearance of this altogether distinguished venture comes as momentary solace.

Obiter dictum: There is less solace, however, in a recent note from Sony. The disc of the music of Kaija Saariaho — conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen with Dawn Upshaw and Gidon Kremer among the soloists — which I reviewed with some ecstasy a few weeks ago to coincide with the announced release date, has now been “indefinitely withheld” from its U.S. release. The reasons, a Sony rep informs me, consist of “problems still to be resolved.” I reviewed the disc from the usual pre-release copy sent to all the press at least two months before I wrote; it’s hard to believe in “problems” showing up this late — especially given the full-page ads for the disc in British journals — except for possible problems among Sony executives concerning serious and challenging new music. To those hopeful buyers — quite a few, I‘m told — who have searched in vain for this marvelous disc, my sympathies: temporary, I hope, but don’t hang by your thumbs.

LA Weekly