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A Haydn Dream That Was Mighty Hard to Realize

John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

As record packages go, the Angeles Quartet’s set of the complete Haydn quartets is a sweet one. Philips put them on 21 slipcased discs that fit into a single, CD-sized box about 2 inches deep, which you can pick up for about $125 from discount dealers.

In England, that is. If you found one of these little blue boxes in your stocking, Santa must have swung through Europe first. Issued overseas last month, this already well-received set won’t get a U.S. release until March.

“I would really like to be able to walk into a record store and see a display of these,” Angeles cellist Stephen Erdody said wistfully as the Christmas shopping season was peaking a few weeks ago. The group--violinists Kathleen Lenski and Sara Parkins, violist Brian Dembow, and Erdody--had just received its first copies of the package that holds five years of intense work.

The project began simply enough, as the L.A.-based ensemble was finishing work in 1993 on its recording of quartets by film composer Erich Korngold and legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler for Koch International. The producer of those sessions told the players of rumors that the Joseph Haydn Society was looking for a North American ensemble to record all of its namesake’s 60-some quartets, a massive project never undertaken here before.

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It turned out the rumors were true. An avid chamber music fan and Haydnphile, who wishes to remain anonymous, was bankrolling the project through the Haydn Society in Seattle and scouting potential artists. The Angeles Quartet made his short list and was invited to submit a demo recording of three Haydn quartets, with which it won the prize.

“We had no idea what we were getting into, really,” Erdody says, “but when we heard, we reacted immediately and said, ‘Yes, we’d like to do it.’ ”

The project met unforeseen trouble from the beginning. The Angeles had been scheduled to make its demo just a few days after the Northridge earthquake, in L.A.'s Gindi Auditorium, but that venue was knocked out by the quake. The quartet booked Little Bridges Hall in Claremont, but even there had to stop the recording with every aftershock.

The agreement with the Haydn Society called for the ensemble to complete the project in five years, including at least two concert performances of each quartet. The Angeles organized a schedule to accommodate these requirements and in October 1994 took off to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Marin County to begin the process.

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“We decided it would be a good idea to be out of Los Angeles, somewhere with no distractions,” Lenski says. The church in Belvedere had acoustics that they liked and was available for the long hours they needed.

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Working intensively, they were able to average three quartets in a four-day session, usually 10 hours a day. The master plan called for four or five of these sessions a year, which with the attendant rehearsing and concertizing meant essentially four or five months each year.

This covered 68 Haydn quartets, not including works generally considered spurious, such as the Opus 3 quartets, or the composer’s quartet arrangements of some of his other pieces. The schedule seemed logistically comfortable and aesthetically workable, but it was no more proof against circumstance than many another five-year plan.

“There was a lot of adversity in this project,” Dembow says. “If you take out the time we lost, we actually did the whole thing in about 48 months. We had a schedule laid out and we felt a degree of pressure to maintain it, get it done.”

The carefully structured schedule got its first serious jolt the second year, when the Haydn Society brought Philips on board. That company initially planned to issue the recordings in smaller installments, and wanted to receive the quartets in a different order than the quartet’s schedule mandated. Because of the concertizing stipulation in the contract, this required a complete rethinking of the schedule.

Then Lenski injured her right arm.

“Basically, I tore a tendon and then played on it, making it worse,” she says. “I had arthroscopic surgery to repair the tendon, but then I tried to come back too soon and crashed again--three times.”

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The quartet continued to play concerts with Margaret Batjer replacing Lenski, but elected not to record without Lenski. That took a big bite out of the middle of the five-year period they had to complete the job.

Then in 1998, second violinist Steve Miller quit, necessitating a search for a replacement. That turned up Parkins, an active studio and contemporary music player, who completed the final year of the effort.

“That was exciting,” she says. “I knew what they were doing, and you don’t say no to a Haydn project.”

Why not? What is the enduring attraction Haydn has for musicians, particularly chamber players?

“There is so much humor and joy in the music,” Lenski says. “I never feel any angst when I’m playing Haydn.”

“The slow movements have been a real discovery,” Parkins says. “There is so much depth there. Actually, every movement is a discovery--there are so many mood changes.”

“The thing about Haydn,” Dembow says, “is that he constantly has you heading down one road, and then he changes direction in a totally unexpected way. There is hardly anything dark in Haydn; he was really trying to uplift people.”

“And he also brought the quartet form into being,” Lenski adds. “He was not influenced by any other composer until late in his career.”

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Haydn may hold a place somewhere behind the tragic boy-genius Mozart and the revolutionary titan Beethoven in the public estimation today--it is hard to imagine an “Amadeus” or an “Immortal Beloved” film about Papa Haydn. But by the end of his life, there was no doubt in his contemporaries’ minds who the greatest composer was, with Mozart already forgotten and Beethoven misunderstood.

“Whoever studies music, let his daily bread be Haydn. Beethoven is indeed admirable, he is incomparable, but he has not the same usefulness as Haydn, he is not a necessity,” wrote the French painter Jean Ingres. “Haydn the great musician, the first who created everything, discovered everything, taught everything to the rest!”

In the U.K., reaction to the Angeles set has been quick and highly favorable.

“Musically and technically the standard of all these performances is very high,” Andrew Clements wrote in the Guardian. “The Angeles Quartet, who have been playing together for 12 years, may not be a familiar name on this side of the Atlantic, but they are clearly a group of considerable pedigree: evenly balanced tonally, and of one mind when it comes to matters of phrasing and articulation.’

“The Angeles String Quartet maintain a stunning level of brilliance, from the relaxed simplicity of the early quartets to dazzling and wonderfully poised performances of late works,” opined the Scotsman. “Heavenly sounds, impeccable playing.”

Although the Angeles Quartet has other particular interests, most notably the chamber music of the great film composers, such as Korngold, Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann, Haydn has been a constant for the group. When the musicians who would become the Angeles Quartet first played together, for a restaurant gathering in 1987, Haydn’s Quartet No. 33, “The Bird,” was on the menu. The next program of their regular Wednesday series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Jan. 17, includes Haydn’s Quartet No. 42.

“I think Haydn’s quartets are far superior to Mozart’s, even on a one-to-one basis,” Erdody says. “It was a new thing and Haydn was more on top of it. Mozart’s quintets are sublime, but the quartet was not his forte. Haydn had an incredible sense of humor, and he had the security to experiment, to try something out and just go on if it didn’t work.”

“And there’s not a whole lot that doesn’t work,” Dembow adds quickly.


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