November 04, 2010


Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 82-87. Heidelberger Sinfoniker conducted by Thomas Fey. Hänssler Classic. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 12, 22, 26, 93, 98, 103 and 104. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi (No. 12), Zubin Mehta (No. 22), Franz Welser-Möst (Nos. 26 and 98), Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Nos. 93 and 103), and Pierre Boulez (No. 104). Vienna Philharmonic Records. $39.99 (3 CDs).

     It is scarcely possible to overestimate the importance of Haydn to classical music. He did not invent the symphony or string quartet, but he shaped, formalized and perfected them to such a degree that their forms retain tremendous power and attraction for composers and listeners alike, more than 200 years after Haydn’s death. He was so influential in his style that for many decades after his death, virtually all composers produced at least some works – symphonies in particular – that were noticeably and quite audibly Haydnesque. Even Beethoven’s famous statement that he never learned anything from Haydn rings false, as close listening to his Eighth Symphony readily confirms. And the overt tributes to Haydn’s symphonic style, from Weber’s two symphonies to Prokofiev’s “Classical,” continued to flow even as composers found new symphonic approaches over the ensuing decades and centuries.

     The poise, balance, charm and tremendous creativity of Haydn retain their power even at a time when many of his dissonances, surprises and unexpected uses of silence have been co-opted by later composers to such a degree that our ears perceive less cleverness than did those of Haydn’s original audiences. Modern performances are at their best when they let Haydn’s symphonies flow naturally and develop as he intended them to, with perhaps a little extra emphasis here and there on elements that Haydn’s audiences would have heard more clearly than do modern listeners: the extensive use of folk tunes, the dissonance between the D in the timpani and the string figures in the finale of No. 93, the Dies irae quotation in the first movement of No. 103, and many, many more. Add some attentiveness to elements that modern audiences can hear with relative ease – the near-boring repetition of a single note in the Andante of No. 83, followed by a “wake up” outburst, or the casting of the finale of No. 104 entirely in duple meter except for a single triplet figure at the very end – and Haydn produces nearly as much wonder and enjoyment today as he did when his works were young.

     The six “Paris” symphonies are among Haydn’s most popular and are filled with grandiose touches that the composer knew would please his Parisian audience. The three with nicknames – No. 82, “The Bear”; No. 83, “The Hen”; and No. 85, “La Reine” – are the most often played, but all six are equally interesting and equally well made, as Thomas Fey and the Heidelberger Sinfoniker make clear in a compilation of recordings made between 2001 and 2006. This is a fairly new orchestra, gaining its present name only in 1993 after Fey founded its predecessor group in 1987, but it plays Haydn as if the orchestra members have been immersed in his music since childhood. The decorative elements – trills, turns and all the rest – are particularly adeptly handled here, while Fey’s tempo choices are often unusual (rather slow Menuets and very fast finales are typical) but invariably convincing. There is remarkable evenness of sound within this orchestra, rather than the much more common string dominance; as a result, Haydn’s many clever uses of winds and brass come through highly effectively. Fey accentuates certain elements of the works, often to very good effect (slightly lengthened pauses) but sometimes less enjoyably (the occasional unneeded and unwelcome tempo change). The attentiveness to dynamics is another major strength here: Haydn was a master of the contrast between piano and forte, and Fey – abetted by players who really can play very softly – makes the most of this element of the symphonies’ structure. This is, in short, an exceptionally enjoyable set of the “Paris” symphonies, filled with verve, brightness and understanding.

     The five-conductor Vienna Philharmonic set is intended to provide an overview of the Haydn’s symphonic career on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his death in 1809. To an extent, it does that, but to a greater extent, it shows just how remarkable an ensemble the Vienna Philharmonic is. This orchestra is arguably – maybe not so arguably – the greatest in the world, and its pristine tonal purity and absolute precision of attack shine through no matter which conductor is at the helm. And yet, although the Vienna Philharmonic famously insists on playing only from its own parts, this is also a highly malleable orchestra, following a conductor’s ideas and whims with astuteness rather than mechanically. The result is that even ill-considered performances – and there are some here – sound wonderful despite being difficult to defend musically. This collection, all of it recorded live, not only spans decades of Haydn’s life but also covers decades of the orchestra’s, with symphonies recorded as early as 1972 (No. 22) and as recently as September of 2009 (No. 98). The most interesting performances turn out to be by the conductors not likely to be immediately associated with Haydn: Christoph von Dohnányi, Zubin Mehta and Pierre Boulez. Dohnányi’s No. 12, recorded in 1991, is wonderfully smooth, carefully balanced and elegant, the irregular-length themes in the second of its three movements handled with particular skill. Mehta’s No. 22 is warm and rich without sounding Romantic, and the balance and contrast between the French and English horns is handled with tremendous skill (and superb playing). And Boulez’s No. 104 is just wonderful, its rhythms exceptionally clean, its tempos sounding exactly right, its instrumental balance outstanding, and its sheer scale showing that this final Haydn symphony has a grandeur equal to that of the late symphonies of Mozart – and surpassing that of early Beethoven. Franz Welser-Möst’s contributions to this set are of unequal quality. No. 26 (recorded in 1998) is bland, with little of the depth that this symphony, called “Lamentatione,” can possess – despite the orchestra’s excellent playing. No. 98, though (which dates to September 2009) is very fine, showing that Welser-Möst grew as a conductor and Haydn interpreter in the decade between these performances. The later one unfolds naturally and bubbles along brightly – but its slow movement, thought to have been written by Haydn after he learned of Mozart’s death, contains barely controlled mourning that comes across far more effectively than anything in Welser-Möst’s ”Lamentatione.” The real disappointments in this set are, surprisingly, Nos. 93 and 103, both led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and recorded in May 2009. Harnoncourt, an early champion of authentic performance practices, completely loses his way here, seeming determined to make Haydn say something new and decidedly non-Haydnesque. The most obvious example is the opening of No. 103, the “Drum Roll,” in which Harnoncourt turns the timpanist loose for an improvisation that sounds like a representation of Donner in Wagner’s Das Rheingold. What it does not sound like is Haydn – and when the timpani solo returns toward the end of the movement, its intrusiveness is even more apparent. Add capricious tempos and stops and starts that impede Haydn’s headlong rhythms, and you have performances that are simply in bad taste. It is hard to fathom what Harnoncourt tries to do here: the set includes a three-minute speech he gave at the concert where these works were recorded, in which the conductor shows himself to be both knowledgeable and a fine raconteur. But his interpretations of these symphonies are simply misguided, and the orchestra’s excellent playing does nothing to conceal that. Still, Haydn’s music has survived far worse, and it seems certain that however much tastes in classical music may change, Haydn will remain one of its strongest foundations – and a thoroughly remarkable one.

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