We’ve all played the “dream dinner party guest list” game. I’d invite a witty raconteur like Victoria Coren-Mitchell or Stephen Fry to keep things lively; a dashing sporting hero, a glamorous soprano – no names! – and maybe a critic well into his anecdotage to spill scurrilous opera gossip. Everyone would make entertaining contributions, but nobody would hog the floor. Now apply that art of good conversation to string quartet writing and nobody – not even Mozart – does it better than Joseph Haydn.

The Castalian String Quartet © Kaupo Kikkas
The Castalian String Quartet
© Kaupo Kikkas

Too often Haydn plays second fiddle to Mozart, although – ironically – when they played quartets together with Dittersdorf and Vanhal, it was Haydn who played first violin and Mozart who played the viola! Wolfgang’s symphonies get programmed far more often in concert halls, as do the quartets, although Haydn was the father of both genres. Perhaps his prolific output – 68 string quartets – presents too much choice? What a joy, then, that Wigmore Hall is celebrating “Papa” Haydn’s quartets with a series of recitals spanning his career. They are sometimes programmed with other composers, at others – as here with the Castalian String Quartet – taking the solo spotlight.

The six Op.76 string quartets are from Haydn’s final creative period. They were published in 1799 with a dedication to Count Joseph Erdödy and were well received, Charles Burney proclaiming they were "full of invention, fire, good taste and new effects". The Castalian played the first three of the set (they tackle the other half in July) and Burney’s admission that he "had never received more pleasure from instrumental music" could hardly have rung truer, so splendid were the performances.

The Castalian played with little vibrato, resulting in lithe, crisp accounts that never felt too weighty nor too rushed. Once the triple-chord opening of the G major quartet was dispatched, gentle conversation broke out straight away, the four players taking turns, like the entries of a fugue, to make their introductions. Charlotte Bonneton’s velvet viola tone was the lynchpin, keeping the dialogue flowing, driving the debate. There was gravity aplenty for the serious, almost Beethovenian Adagio, while the Ländler-like violin figure for the third movement’s Trio section found Sini Simonen soaring, despite the odd moment of insecure intonation. The muscular G minor finale put a rare scowl on Haydn’s face before the false ending gave way to a delicate, tripping melody to see the quartet end in twinkling humour.

Two falling fifths at the start give the D major provide the quartet with its “Fifths” nickname, its austere first movement given a business-like rendition, alert but never driven too hard. After a delicate Andante, the spiky Minuet – sometimes called the "Witches’ Minuet" – rasped vigorously. The Hungarian gypsy-style finale – characterised by its stamps and pauses – chattered merrily, Christopher Graves’ sleek cello tone adding to the banter.

The finest of the first three Op.76 quartets – arguably of the entire set – is the C major no. 3. Its nickname of “The Emperor” is drawn from the second movement, where Haydn employed his own hymn tune “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser" (God save the Emperor Franz), the former Austrian national anthem. It starts with the two violinists in cantabile duet, Simonen and Daniel Roberts dovetailed perfectly. The Castalian performed the opening movement with plenty of spirit, especially the central sections where Haydn slips some rural gossip into the conversation, throwing in a heavy peasant dance complete with wheezy drone, amusingly executed. After further rustic capers in the Minuet, the Presto finale was a little brusque, perhaps our host indicating that it was time for us to call our carriages and head home. Good dinner guests never outstay their welcome but the Castalian fully deserve their July return invitation.

****1