February 04, 2010


Michael Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 14, 17, 19, 24, 29, 33, 40 and 41; Symphony in F; Three Marches. Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss conducted by Frank Beermann and Johannes Goritzki. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Avner Dorman: Mandolin Concerto (2006); Piccolo Concerto (2001); Concerto Grosso (2003); Piano Concerto (1995). Avi Avital, mandolin; Mindy Kaufman, piccolo; Eliran Avni, piano; Metropolis Ensemble conducted by Andrew Cyr. Naxos. $8.99.

     It is Michael Haydn’s posthumous misfortune to be perpetually overshadowed, both by his older brother, Joseph, and by his younger contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In his own era, Michael Haydn (1737-1806) was considerably better thought of than in subsequent times. A number of his 40-plus symphonies were for many years attributed to Joseph, and one symphony was long thought to be by Mozart – which explains the mysterious absence of a “No. 37” from Mozart’s symphonic catalogue. Mozart actually wrote the introduction to that symphony’s first movement, thus confusing matters further; and indeed, in his earlier musical life, Mozart took Michael Haydn as a model and copied a number of his works – thus leading to considerable confusion about original authorship. All of this would be no more than a set of curiosities of musical history if it were not for the fact that Michael Haydn composed a great deal of music, much of it of very considerable interest, that is indisputably his own – not only symphonies but also string quartets and quintets, dances, marches, ballets, serenades, concertos, and lots of vocal music, both sacred and secular (but only one opera, Andromeda e Perseo – although he did write a number of Singspiels). Frank Beermann and the Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss do a great deal to show just how effective Michael Haydn’s orchestral music can be in their new two-CD set of some of his symphonies. Many of these works tie more closely to Baroque models than did those of Joseph Haydn and Mozart; indeed, the appellation Sinfonia tends to fit them better than does that of Symphony. The works certainly sound more like throwbacks than do better-known ones of the same time. For example, No. 41 in A, the composer’s last numbered symphony, dates to 1789 – but is worlds distant from Mozart’s No. 41 in C, written a year earlier. Michael Haydn’s work includes a fugato and sixteenth-note runs that are effective but scarcely forward-looking, although it does have some interesting sonorities, notably the use of bassoon with violins in the first movement. The other works here all have elements of considerable interest without ever becoming compelling as full-scale pieces. No. 33 in B-flat, for example, is attention-getting, with trumpets and drums, but harks back to Italian opera overtures (this work’s minuet was added later to its original three-movement structure). No. 17 in E, assembled by the composer from earlier stage music, has effective folklike elements and a rather eerie Trio to its minuet. No. 40 in F balances strings and winds with considerable skill. The Andante of No. 24 in A features attractive variations in which the winds play against muted strings. No 29 in D minor, the sole minor-key symphony that Michael Haydn wrote, offers an odd combination of minor-key tonality with festive scoring and bright themes. No single symphony here stands out as being completely effective from start to finish, but all contain commendable elements that show Michael Haydn’s skill at musical construction and instrumentation. And the three short marches that fill out the recording – from 1786, 1787 and 1790 – are full of verve and spirit, with one of them, surprisingly, scored for strings alone.

     The Baroque flavor that remained in Michael Haydn’s works never completely disappeared from music in the centuries that followed, although it was much transformed (in Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, to cite just one example). Even in the 20th and 21st centuries, Baroque music and Baroque forms have retained their power to inspire composers – such as Avner Dorman (born 1975), who has written concertos that draw on Baroque models for formal structure and even sometimes for harmony, but use the rhythms of jazz, ethnic music and rock ‘n roll for their communicative effects. This can be an uneasy combination, and Dorman’s music will not strike all listeners as having managed it effectively – this CD gets a (+++) rating. But in Dorman as in Michael Haydn, there is a great deal worth hearing even if the totality of the works seems less effective than some of their individual parts. The Mandolin Concerto – performed by Avi Avital, who commissioned it – is a particularly interesting throwback, although Dorman never quite lets this old instrument be itself: he gives it Middle Eastern sounds that do not quite fit its timbre, includes pizzicato harmonics, and has the mandolin detuned at the work’s end. The concerto is a curiosity rather than a compelling piece, but it certainly has interesting sonic moments. The Piccolo Concerto is in traditional fast-slow-fast form and shows closer ties to Baroque and Classical times, although it also features prominent polytonality. Dorman’s Concerto Grosso – a Baroque form if there ever was one – actually includes a harpsichord and a little of Handel’s Concerto Grosso, op. 6, no. 4, but it is more driven rhythmically than a work of the Baroque era. The Piano Concerto, written when Dorman was 19, is inspired by Bach and dedicated to Vivaldi, and it is something of a mashup, including bits of jazz, pop, rock and other 20th-century forms while maintaining some elements of Baroque style. All these pieces – all of which are very well played by soloists and ensemble alike – come across more as experiments than as works of heartfelt expressiveness; all have effective moments that give way, all too soon, to less-effective ones. Dorman has some interesting compositional ideas; but on the basis of these works he has yet to find a voice that is uniquely his rather than one that structures music by juxtaposing modern styles with much older ones.

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