Haydn Symphonies

Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini (cond)
Alpha 670
Symphonies 1, 39 & 49; Gluck: Don Juan

Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini (cond)
Alpha 672
Symphonies 4, 42 & 64; Overture – L’Isola disabitata; Cantata – Sole e pensoso

Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini (cond)
Alpha 674
Symphonies 12, 60 & 70; Cimarosa: Il maestro di cappella

HAYDN: SYMPHONIES Nos. 79, 80 & 81
Capella Savaria, Nicholas McGegan (cond)
Hungaroton HCD 32823

Le Concert de la Loge, Julien Chauvin (cond)
Aparté AP186
Davaux: Sinfonia Concertante for 2 violins; Devienne: Sinfonia Concertante for flute, oboe, bassoonn & hornn

There can surely be few compositions more suited to binge listening than the symphonies (or indeed the string quartets) of Haydn. With him you get just about everything: unfailing invention and compositional technique of the highest order; drama; pathos; wit; and of course genial companionability, the reputation for which has arguably done the composer more harm than good. So the accumulation in my in-tray of no fewer than five CDs featuring Haydn symphonies reaching from the first of them, composed around to 1758, to No. 82, ‘The Bear’, composed for Paris in 1786, offered a rare opportunity to survey nearly three decades of prolific symphonic output.

Three of the discs included come from an ambitious project to record the complete symphonies, planned for completion by 2032, the year in which the 300th anniversary of Haydn’s birth will be celebrated. The musical director of the series is the Italian conductor Giovanni Antonini, who has directed his own Il Giardino Armonico and the Kammerorchester Basel in the seven issues so far released (reviews of volumes 2 and 5 can be found elsewhere on this site). In his notes that preface volume 1 Antonini writes of attempting to find a ‘code’, or key to the logic behind Haydn’s music, concluding ‘I don’t know if Haydn performed his music the way I do it; probably not. But taking a conscious approach to historical music also includes adding a good dose of your own creativity’. Indeed it does and although one doesn’t have to agree with everything Antonini does (this listener doesn’t) the overwhelming single impression made by his performances is that every bar is intensely alive and compelling in a way that is rarely experienced on a recording.

As one progresses through the series, certain common characteristics emerge. One of the most obvious is the extreme dynamic contrasts employed, from barely heard whispers of sound – superlatively sustained by outstanding orchestral playing – to furious, at times brazen outbursts. Tempos, too, tend to follow the modern taste for extremes, but so compelling are the performances that only in a movement like the Allegro di molto (ii) of ‘La Passione’ (No. 49 in F minor) might the listener perhaps occasionally pause to question the very brisk speed. In these quicker movements articulation is extremely precise, short-bowed and again arguably at times guilty of not allowing notes their full value. But that is a post-listening observation; at the time of experiencing the music the listener tends to be so caught up by the rhythmic spring and exuberant, sinewy muscularity of the playing that such thoughts are swiftly banished. Neither is a lighter, often enchanting and engaging grace excluded, a quality already apparent both in Haydn’s writing and Antonini’s performance of the exquisite Andante of Symphony No. 1 in D, one of the more impressive symphonic debuts in the repertoire.

Antonini’s way with Haydn’s slower movements (and it is rarely appropriate to write of slow movements in the Classical symphony) never ceases to remind us that he is an Italian, that his ability to draw beautifully structured and shaped cantabile lines is one of the great beauties of the cycle. Among many examples, perhaps one might take the Andante (ii) of the Symphony in D (No. 70), considered by the great Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon to be greatest symphony of the period (the late 1770s). The movement features exceptionally learned compositional technique, being a double canon. Yet what the listener hears is a grave, understated nocturnal march, played with the utmost finesse, with warm winds contributing to sounds of quite magical delicacy. Finally, it would be wrong to leave Antonini’s Haydn without paying the highest tribute to the playing of Il Giardino Armonico, which in all departments is throughout so outstanding that I hope singling out the fabulous playing of the four horns in the G-minor symphony (No. 39) on volume 1 will not be thought too ungallant.

Not the least of the attractions of the Antonini series is the inclusion of music other than symphonies by either Haydn himself or his contemporaries. Volume 1 includes a substantial ‘extra’ in the shape of the original version of Gluck’s ballet Don Juan of 1761, though the fact that it is incomplete is not noted in the booklet. The scenario, with small variations, will be familiar to anyone who knows Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The score, which originally consists of 31 mainly brief movements (or dances), is colourfully varied, culminating in the demonic scene in which the Don is dragged to hell, here played with fiercely incisive drive. Volume 3 includes two additional works, the overture to Haydn’s opera L’isola dishabitata (1779) and the scena for soprano ‘Solo e pensoso’, Haydn’s setting of the magnificent sonnet by Petrarch, also set by Marenzio as a magnificent five-part madrigal. Here it is beautifully done by the lustrously-voiced Francesca Aspromonte, who captures the vulnerability and fragility of the poem to near-ideal effect. A very different kind of vocal work makes a substantial contribution to Volume 4. Cherubini’s effervescent Il maestro di Capella (1795) is a work that takes us firmly into the world of opera buffo. It takes a popular 18th-century conceit – a work about musicians performing music (c.f. Mozart’s Impressario) – to introduce a hard-pressed Kapellmeister trying to get his musicians to perform correctly his latest ‘masterpiece’. Into his increasing frustration are introduced sly digs relevant to contemporary music making. Needless to say all ultimately comes out well. Baritone Riccardo Novaro is outstanding, capturing every mood and nuance in richly hued but never overplayed fashion.

During Nicholas McGegan’s days as artistic director of the Göttingen Handel Festival, I recall several exceptional Haydn symphony performances, one of the ‘London’ Symphony (No. 104) lingering particularly in the mind. It is no surprise therefore to find his CD with a trio of symphonies from the period immediately before the ‘Paris’ symphonies of the late 1780s to be most attractive. If the playing of Capella Savaria, the Hungarian period instrument orchestra with which McGegan has a long association, cannot quite match that of Antonini’s superb band, it is never less than extremely capable and well balanced, with some especially good wind playing. This is less radical Haydn than that of Antonini, but the urbane geniality of No. 79 in F in particular suits McGegan’s own affability to a tee. No. 80 in D minor is a different matter altogether, termed by Robbins Landon ‘mock-heroic’ because of the huge contrast between the opening Allegro spiritoso’s tautly dramatic main subject and the unexpected lightness, almost triviality, of the secondary idea in the major. It is almost as if the composer is having a laugh at our expense. McGegan captures ideally this duality with all his masterful experience, going on to provide a satisfying account of this strangely quirky symphony.

Le Concert de la Loge is (unsurprisingly) a French ensemble that derives its name from the organisation that commissioned and performed six Haydn symphonies in the mid-1780s. Its CD includes the first numbered of them (though not the first composed), No. 82 in C, which bears the nickname ‘The Bear’ after the heavy ‘bear dance’ theme of the final movement. Le Concert de la Loge Olympique – to give it its full name – boasted a large orchestra and the symphonies Haydn wrote for it are the most ambitious he had yet undertaken. The performance is closer to those of Antonini than McGegan, lithe and vibrant with well-sprung rhythms both in fully and lightly scored passages. The ‘bear dance’ finale is especially rumbustious and characterful, the only drawback being odd moments of rhythmic disruption, which introduce an unwelcome degree of affectation. In addition Julien Chauvin adds two works of a kind particularly associated with Paris, the sinfonia concertante, a kind of cross between symphony and concerto with two or more soloists integrated into a symphonic texture. It’s a difficult genre, dominated by one incontrovertibly great work, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, K364. Neither of the two examples here are remotely in that league, that by Davaux being in the potpourri form fashionable around the turn of the century. The concertante by Devienne, who will be known to all flautists, is the better, falling as it does agreeably on the ear. There is some felicitous writing for the four soloists, though it suffers from the form’s usual problem – finding space for all the soloists to have solo passages employing the same material and thus tending to become somewhat longwinded and repetitive.

To sum up. It is noteworthy that all these CDs would grace a collection. The three Antonini discs especially are part of a series that demands the attention of all serious Haydn collectors. It is now firmly established as the on going cycle de nos jours, though some of us are unlikely to live to see its completion! McGegan’s attractive CD brings to attention three lesser-known works, while the French recording includes a compelling version of an outstanding work, though it will be less appealing to anyone not attracted to the sinfonia concertantes.

Brian Robins

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