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.
Haydn’s six Op. 20 string quartets are milestones in the history of the genre. He wrote them in 1772 for performance by his colleagues at the Esterházy court and, unusually, not specifically for publication. Each one is a unique masterpiece and the set introduces compositional techniques that radically transformed the genre and shaped it for centuries to come. Haydn overturns conventional instrumental roles, crafts remarkably original colours and textures, and unlocks new expressive possibilities in these works which were crucial in establishing the reputation of purely instrumental music. The range within the quartets is kaleidoscopic. From the introspective, chorale-like slow movement of No. 1 via the terse and radical quartet No. 3 in G minor to the comic spirit of the fourth in D major, each of the quartets inhabits a distinct musical world. For many, this is some of the greatest music Haydn ever wrote. Playing these seminal works is one of the world’s finest young ensembles, the Doric String Quartet.