Haydn: Symphonies 7 & 83 – Violin concerto in C

Aisslinn Nosky violin, Handel and Haydn Society, Harry Christophers
74:24
Coro 16139

The unusual programming here can be explained by the disc being a live concert given as part of a series at Boston’s Symphony Hall, each featuring one of the ‘Matin’, Midi’, ‘Soir’ trilogy, a violin concerto and one of the ‘Paris’ symphonies. Curiously Christophers takes no account of the greatly differing forces Haydn would have had at his disposal for these works, employing the same number of strings for works written for the small Esterházy band and the large Concert de la Loge Olympique orchestra. Incidentally, it is worth noting that Robbins Landon’s claim (stated without a source and followed by Lindsay Kemp’s notes) that the Paris orchestra employed 40 violins and 10 double basses, is contradicted by a contemporary account that quotes figures of 17 and 4 respectively for 1786, the year before the ‘Paris’ symphonies were first performed.

The large string complement may at least in part account for the somewhat portentous Adagio introduction of ‘Le midi’, composed in 1761 and along with its companions probably one of the first works Haydn wrote for his new employer, Prince Paul Anton Esterházy. All three are concertante works that incorporate numerous solos that enable both he and his new orchestral colleagues to show off their paces to their employer. But I’m not entirely convinced that Christophers has quite caught the spirit of the piece, since although the Allegro bubbles along zestfully, the tremolandi  energetically bowed, there is throughout a tendency to be over serious. Here, as elsewhere in appropriate movements, Christophers takes the second half repeat. The highly original slow movement, an accompagnato  followed by a soulful aria in which the solo violin takes the role of the singer, might have been given a greater sense of momentum.

The C-major Violin Concerto also dates from 1760s, having been written for the Esterházy leader Luigi Tomasini. While hardly a virtuoso work, it was written to exploit Tomasini’s facility to play in a high register (some of the string quartets do the same) and also includes a fair amount of double-stopping. None of this holds any problems for the Handel and Haydn’s concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, who plays the work with verve in the outer movements – the Presto finale has a particularly agreeable spring in its step – and spins out the cantabile of the central Andante with secure intonation and unfailingly musical line. My one quarrel would be with the overblown first movement cadenza.

With the Symphony No 83 we move onto a different plain, the main dish after a two-course hors d’oeuvres. This is probably the Haydn symphony to have suffered most from a 19th century nickname, ‘La poule’ (The hen), which stems from the clucking motif heard in the second group of the opening Allegro spiritoso. It is in fact, especially in this movement, a highly dramatic G-minor symphony. The apparent contradiction leads Kemp to describe the work as ‘oddly schizophrenic’, yet I believe this to be a misreading. The motif is surely a joke that has been overlooked, as if the composer is saying: ’yes, indeed, this is indeed a stormy minor-key movement, but, hey, I’ve done all that the Sturm und Drang stuff, so lighten up a bit’ (some early sources actually head the movement ‘Con garbo’ – ‘with elegance’). Whatever the intention, Christophers gives the work a compelling performance, encouraging his strings to dig deeply into the intensity of the turbulent opening section, while exposing the counterpoint of the development with the practised hand of the experienced Handelian he is. The serene slow movement also goes well, with warmly affectionate playing, though there are one or two moments where romantic self-indulgence creeps in. The Minuet moves at a good pace, while the irrepressibly bucolic Vivace conveys a sturdy masculinity that reminds us that its composer was born a son of the soil.

Brian Robins