Haydn: Symphonies

Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati
77:00
Linn CKD 500
Symphonies 31, 70, 101

Haydn: Symphonies
Royal Northern Sinfonia, Rebecca Miller
69:54
Signum Classics SIGCD 434
Symphonies 52, 53, 59

Even modest exposure to Haydn’s music (and I’ve also been assessing a new Creation) is liable to recall to mind the old adage that he remains the most neglected of all the great composers. Among the six symphonies on these two CDs, most of them little known, there are constant reminders of his quite astonishing originality, whether it be in the amazing C alto horn parts of Symphony No. 31, ‘The Hornsignal’, the wit of Symphony No 70. in D, the passion and drama of No. 52 in C minor or the irresistably good-humoured maturity of No. 101 in D, ‘The Clock’. This is a group of works that spans much of Haydn’s creative life, ranging from 1765 (No. 31), four years after he entered the service of the Esterházy court up until ‘The Clock’ of 1794, a work composed for Haydn’s triumphant concert series in London. A couple of textural points: in the finale of No. 70 Ticciati employs the timpani and trumpet parts later added by Haydn and missing from most editions (mine included) until rediscovered by H. C. Robbins Landon, while Miller’s performance of No. 59, ‘The Imperial’ includes both finales, the operatic overture originally used by Haydn and the movement marked Capriccio with which he later replaced it.

The two discs containing these works start with much in common. Both feature highly regarded chamber orchestras playing modern rather than period instruments, though the Scottish Chamber Orchestra does field natural horns and trumpets along with, I suspect, hard-headed timpani sticks. The string forces are identical at 8-6-4-4-2, rather too large for the Easterházy symphonies, but appropriate for ‘The Clock’. Both opt for keyboard continuo – still a controversial topic – Ticciati a sometimes hyperactive fortepiano, Miller a barely audible harpsichord. The two sets of performances also have much in common. Repeats are universally observed, perhaps rather too assiduously for some tastes by Ticciati, who observes not only exposition repeats but all double-bar repeats, even those of the recapitulation of minuets. There is much to commend. Tempos are throughout largely unexceptionable and it is good to find minuets taken at a sensible, forward moving speed and andantes that nowhere drag. Only in the case of the Adagio of No. 31 did I feel a greater sense of forward movement might have been preferable, but that may have as much to do with all those repeats as actual tempo. The playing of both orchestras is exemplary, with fresh, well-balanced woodwinds and splendidly articulated strings; happily gone are the days when modern strings smothered articulation in vibrato, a measure of the influence the HIP movement has had on modern players. Ticciati’s natural horns are also expertly played, but that brings me to a major caveat about these discs. It seems to me pointless to have natural horns braying brazenly, only to have their boisterously outdoor effect vitiated by effete-sounding modern strings. Few composers suffer more from the sound of such string playing than Haydn. To remove the greater, more robust and earthier character of period strings is to deprive his music of much of its muscular strength and energy. Or to put more colourfully, it is to brush off the country dust and clean the mud from his boots in favour of polite, inappropriate gentility.

As already noted, there is much to praise here and my major reservation will have varying (or no) significance according to taste, though I suspect most readers of a specialized early music review will understand the point being made.

Brian Robins