Haydn seek

The Haydn Trail Wigmore Hall, London

Did Haydn, on his visit to London in 1791, meet churchwarden Robert Vyner, whose name survives engraved on the walls of St George's, Hanover Square? It's the kind of thing you asked yourself on the Haydn trail, latest in the Wigmore Hall's weekend London jaunts in the shadows of great composers. While Florilegium played on Saturday morning, the eye sought ancient traces round the aisle. Between the music, Simon McVeigh piled on the historical anecdotes, helping us picture the past in terms of sight and sound.

Chiefly, of course, it was sound that did it. Soprano Sarah Fox sang Haydn folksong arrangements, including The Ash Grove, set to words by Mrs Hunter. Haydn had designs on Mrs Hunter. Her husband, the surgeon who founded the London Hospital, had designs on Haydn's famous nasal polyp. Both were refused. A string quartet, with Neal Perez Da Costa on fortepiano and Ashley Solomon on flute, played an arrangement of the 104th Symphony. The songs came between the second and third movements, grist to the mill of McVeigh's remark that Haydn treated the simplest things in complex ways, yet was still loved by his audience.

All this was by way of setting for the main event: a cycle of all the Haydn quartets from Op 20 on, launched by the Lindsays to celebrate their 30th anniversary. The remark by their leader, Peter Cropper, that Haydn never repeated himself was amply sustained on Saturday, when the first three of Op 20 were performed. The first, in E flat, had some tuning problems to be settled before the music swung into gear, moving through stages of argument to the fulfilment of the fugal finale, a feature of all the quartets in this set.

"Achieved is the glorious work" one could say of their style, in which Haydn fixed the limits of the genre for the next 200 years. Stately in Op 20 No 1, the music also admitted of contraction to the barest essentials. No 3, in G minor, a restless creature, moved through its cycle of actions in no time at all. No 4, in D , was by contrast a delightful essay in the kind of musical gamesmanship for which Haydn is renowned. Strangest was the "capriccio" slow movement of No 2: arching, hollow phrases that groped through time like a scene from a lost gothic opera.

The story continued on Sunday morning, the trail meanwhile having taken in Evensong at Westminster Abbey, with concerts at the Royal Overseas League and the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, still to come. The Lindsays played the last two quartets of Op 20, with the first of Op 33, in B minor, as a taster for Haydn's next instalment. He claimed they were written in "a new and special way", but the absence of fugues and the presence of scherzi apart, the style of this work seemed congruous with its predecessors, and with the man whose rounded nature so clearly speaks through the music. Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, he might have said of his aims, but, above all, be nothing but yourself.

Nicholas Williams

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