The first thing one notices about this disc is the attractive sound, rounded yet detailed; the second is that the playing of the orchestra is stylish; last but not least, the soloist's first entry tells us that he, too, is a fine player. Rainer Kussmaul's name was unknown to me, but a note on the jewel-case says that he is about to become leader of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He produces a lovely sound on what sounds like an excellent instrument, and phrases gracefully: altogether this is most enjoyable Haydn playing.
Not many string quartets play on period instruments, perhaps because the public for this music is not familiar with their sound, but also because much of the string quartet repertoire goes beyond the period that these instruments usually cover. The Festetics is one of the few top-rank quartets that does use such instruments, and has focused on the late 18th and early 19th century repertoire - Haydn, Schubert and Mozart - though they have also recorded works by other composers, such as Liszt.
There is a noticeable difference in the sound of this ensemble when comparing it with other quartets. The instruments are more trenchant, the sound is more limpid, and the texture less homogeneous. It is far easier for such an ensemble to create a sound of four instruments interacting, as opposed to a unitary sound that is a mixture of those instruments.
What a versatile artist Steven Isserlis is. Having made his name as a sympathetic interpreter of a wide variety of romantic and modern music, here he shows he can be just as persuasive in eighteenth-century repertoire. His stylistic awareness is evident in beautiful, elegant phrasing, selective use of vibrato and varied articulation, giving an expressive range that never conflicts with the music’s natural language. In the cello concertos he is helped by an extremely sensitive accompaniment, stressing the chamber musical aspects of Haydn’s pre-London orchestral writing. The soft, intimate sonority at 3'06'' in the first movement of the D major is a typical example. The Adagios are taken at a flowing speed, but Isserlis’s relaxed approach means they never sound hurried. The Allegro molto finale of the C major Concerto, on the other hand, sounds poised rather than the helter-skelter we often hear. In his understanding of the music, Isserlis is a long way ahead of Han-na Chang, whose version places the emphasis on fine, traditional-style cello playing. Mork’s vivacious, imaginative performances characterize the music very strongly, but my preference would be for Isserlis’s and Norrington’s lighter touch and greater refinement.
This warmly recorded, naturally balanced disc is delightful. The Minetti Quartet offers three late Haydn masterpieces, played with plenty of high spirits and, in the slow movements, a fresh songfulness (both Opp. 64's and 76's are marked "cantabile") that's most affecting. There's practically nothing to criticize here. Highlights include the really zippy final prestos of Opp. 64 and 76, and the intense Largo assai of the "Rider" quartet. In the finale of the latter, the group's articulation is a touch clipped in the main theme, and as a result the music doesn't quite speak as it should, but better too much energy than too little. The minuet (really a scherzo) of Op. 76 also is terrific, smooth as silk until Haydn's disruptive syncopation sets in. If you're looking for a very attractive single-disc collection of late Haydn quartets, I can recommend this without hesitation. Playing time is a bit short–under an hour–so there was still room for another full quartet, but if this doesn't concern you terribly, then go for it.