In the first two pieces by Franz Joseph Haydn played by the Smithson Quartet Tuesday night in the Renwick Gallery, you could hear that most intimate and elegant of musical forms, the string quartet, coming of age. Haydn did not actually use the title "Quartet" until he published his Op. 33 in 1781, but the essentials of the form -- particularly the finely balanced sound, the sense of dialogue and equality (or near-equality) among the four instruments and a new level of personal expression, particularly in slow movements -- can be heard in the six "divertimentos" for two violins, viola and cello published as his Op. 20 in 1772.
Two of these (No. 1 in E-flat and No. 3 in G Minor) were played before intermission, and by any name, the music is a delight. There was a fine contrast between the light, lyrical No. 1 (with its more emotional slow movement) and the bold, inventive, sometimes intensely serious No. 3 (with its brilliantly playful finale). After intermission, the contrast with Op. 20, No. 3, cast a new light on the bright, energetic, considerably more mature and complex Op. 76, No. 2, in D Minor, a work that not only shows great sophistication in the invention and development of musical motifs but also revels in the varied textures and sonorities that can be produced by four string players.
The Smithson Quartet played with beautifully coordinated ensemble sound, as usual, and with a fine sense of the music's varied styles and emotional overtones.