Haydn’s Razor

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Haydn: Quartet Op. 64 No. 5 “Lark” / Quartet Op. 55 No. 2 “Razor

The Salomon String Quartet

L’Oiseau-Lyre/Decca 414 712-1

Franz Joseph Haydn pretty much invented the string quartet as a serious chamber ensemble. He did one better by composing 68 of them (a few with spurious provenances), more than most composers combined. Many are familiar with his Op. 76 quartets, but this L’Oiseau-Lyre album, with collaborations from Decca and even The Folio Society, presents his “Lark” and somewhat ominous “Razor” string quartets.

In the “Lark”, so called for the high-registered opening of the violin, Haydn was thinking expressly of his violinist friend Joseph Tost, who was playing at the time in Haydn’s private Esterhaza orchestra. And really, it’s a showpiece for Tost more than anything, with a final vivace that’s a fast-forwarded flurry of virtuosity from the violinist.

The title of the first quartet on the Salomons’ recording, however, comes from an apocryphal incident. Apparently, Haydn was frustrated by his inability to find a suitable implement to shave his face while at the Esterhaza palace in Hungary and, in 1790, he traded the score of the quartet to the passing-through music publisher John Bland for a couple of much needed straight-edges, and these were duly supplied.

But the “Razor”, despite it’s jocular background, is more tempestuous than is typical of Haydn, with quite odd transitions. F minor and F major battle it out through the 4-movement work, leading to a back and forth where lengthy silences begin in one key. and the music resumes in the other. Finally, in the Presto that concludes the quartet, F major comes out on top with a spunky little dance.

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