Surely the string quartet is the King of Musical Art Forms, and Haydn's achievements in this form that he nutured and pioneered has never been surpassed, and obviously never can be. Though I'm not aware of the circumstances under which his so-called "Thirty Famous Quartets" were selected, the fact that the first three quartets of op. 20, which are recorded here by the Kodalys, weren't included in the bunch seems to be evidence that the selection process was arbitrary and perhaps even fatuous, for Opus 20 contains some of Haydn's very greatest music. Was the Famous Thirty, I wonder, little more than a publisher's grab bag from the embarrassment of riches of Haydn's compositions? The first quartet of the opus (E flat major) for example, is one of the most sublime, artless, and achingly beautiful creations not only in Haydn's output, but in all of music. How can it be that something so great could have been relegated to the status of a second-class citizen for so many years? Every one of Mozart's ten great string quartets (he also wrote 13 clunkers) are performed and recorded with awesome regularly; Ditto Beethoven's 16 great ones. Why not Haydn's?
Well, one reason is that Haydn produced so many more great works than his compatriots in the "First Viennese School" in this sublime, arduous form that it confused people. The other reason can be found in the fact that for many if not most classical music listeners, Haydn has never quite been given his due regard as one of the three or four greatest composers in history (and quite possibly, along with Bach, one of the two greatest). This is a shame that I think should be rectified, and the only way to do that, really, is to LISTEN.
Anyway, the six masterpieces that comprise the so-called Sun Quartets are a revolutionary attainment, at least as important as Beethoven's five "late" quartets, where Haydn finally throws off the vestigial artistic shackles of the divertimento and therefore, after much hard work, devises the classical string quartet in its undying glory. In comparison composers such as Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovich, Bartok, Berg, and Schoenberg, though all undeniably great quartet writers, are second-tier next to Haydn. As a listener, I'm no conservative, and it took me about twenty years of obsessive listening to classical music to realize this, but I'm glad I finally did.
For those uncertain about Haydn as a quartet composer, short of venturing to the library, the Kodalys on Naxos is as painless and inexpensive a way to start, and features some very fine performances. I would suggest by starting out with the two CDs that constitute Opus 20, and the two that constitute Opus 76. That's twelve works of sublime, profoundly moving, deathless music for under forty bucks! Or heck, pick one or two of the four CDs! Listen with open ears and it's quite possible you will want to acquire all of the recordings of the Kodalys of Haydn's unsurpassable masterpieces.