The quartet is the most important of the items. It’s in only two movements, but at 20 minutes the first movement is very long. It’s both extensive and concentrated, and repays endless re-listenings. Indeed, it might be said that repeat listenings are required for anything like a full appreciation.
The most easily accessible item is the last, Fellow Traveler, a tribute to Sellars on his 50th birthday. The title is perhaps an ironic reference to Oppenheimer, who was considered a “fellow traveler,” for example, a Communist sympathizer, by the FBI of his day. But in fact the music that gets echoed in this short piece (of which this is the first recording) is more that of Nixon in China, the premiere of which Sellars directed.
Either way, the music is stunningly played. The Attacca Quartet was Graduate Resident Quartet at the prestigious Julliard Music School from 2011 to 2013, and is currently preparing to perform all of Haydn’s 68 string quartets.
It so happens Haydn has been to the fore for me this month. This is entirely thanks to the Naxos Video Library (www.naxosvideolibrary.com), an organization that puts a large number of DVD recordings online for its members to watch. It in no way limits itself to Naxos’s own recordings, and has recently announced the acquisition of 500 items from the Sony Classical label, with more to follow.
The library recently added a number of videos from Arthaus Musik showing various conductors in rehearsal, one of which is of Christoph Von Donhanyi rehearsing London’s Philharmonia Orchestra in Haydn’s Symphony No. 88. This is one of Haydn’s finest symphonies, and you watch Von Donhanyi go through its four movements, with comments from instrumentalists inserted here and there.
Then at the end Von Donhanyi makes some astonishing remarks. This is entertainment, he says, but entertainment on an extremely high level. We are totally unable to create music like this nowadays, he adds. It’s a capacity we’ve lost.
Another film available on the Naxos Video Library is Phil Grabsky’s In Search of Haydn. It’s remarkable on account of the sheer number of musicians, conductors and music historians who appear. Their virtually unanimous opinion is that Haydn is never called a genius, as Mozart and Beethoven routinely are, but was nonetheless every bit their equal.
Of the many instrumentalists who give their opinion, Emanuel Ax is among the most instructive. And the celebrated conductor Roger Norrington concurs, unbeknownst to him, with Von Donhanyi in saying Haydn produced pure entertainment. How one wishes composers today composed to entertain, Norrington adds with a wry smile.