March 16, 2017


Haydn: Symphony No. 6, “Le matin”; Symphony No. 82, “L’ours”; Violin Concerto No. 4. Aisslin Nosky, violin; Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.

Haydn: Symphony No. 7, “Le midi”; Symphony No. 83, “La poule”; Violin Concerto No. 1. Aisslin Nosky, violin; Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.

Haydn: Symphony No. 8, “Le soir”; Symphony No. 84; Violin Concerto No. 3. Aisslin Nosky, violin; Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.

     A daring and delicious presentation of Haydn, these three live-recording CDs from the Handel and Haydn Society under Harry Christophers offer something quite different from the normal approach to recordings of this music and are unalloyed successes in their handling of it. The Society was founded in 1815 to perform music that was then old (Handel) and then new (Haydn), and while it is in many ways quite different today – no, there are no 200-plus-year-old musicians – its commitment to the music of its original time is strong and sure two centuries later. But this is not just another original-instrument, historic-performance-practice group. It is one that thinks about music in context: the context of the time in which it was originally written, the context of today’s audiences, and the context of certain specific pieces within the overall musical output of a particular composer.

     It is this last context that is especially apparent and enlightening on three CORO discs that offers performances from 2013, 2015 and 2016. The works here are the three early symphonies that Haydn certainly conceived as a trilogy, but spread over three CDs instead of offered on a single one; the three surviving violin concertos that are certainly (well, almost certainly) by Haydn; and the first three of the six “Paris” symphonies. This is a rather aberrant way to present this music, but by taking chances and offering it like this, Christophers and the orchestra make an unusually trenchant case for the similarities and differences among various Haydn works, and give listeners an unusual opportunity for a clear comparison of what stayed the same during Haydn’s career and what changed, sometimes a great deal.

     This is scarcely a perfect approach, if any such exists. For example, the 30-or-so-piece orchestra is just the right size for the early symphonies and concertos, but not for the “Paris” symphonies, which were written for an orchestra much closer in size to a full-scale modern one, with 40 violins and 10 (!) double basses. But what the Handel and Haydn Society lacks in sheer heft, it more than makes up for in clarity, responsiveness, and the sheer verve and joy that permeate all these performances. This is unusually apparent in the concertos, which are not among Haydn’s most-significant works. For years, nine violin concertos were attributed to him; eventually it was determined that only four of the nine were authentic; one of those four was lost; so there are now three remaining, oddly numbered Nos. 1, 3 and 4. Of them, No. 4 remains somewhat doubtful in authorship, although it has enough Haydn flavor so that it is most likely the earliest surviving concerto rather than one created by someone else. What is delightful here is that Aisslin Nosky refuses to treat any of the concertos as throwaways or minor works, insisting that their poise, balance, elegance, and sense of fun make them worthy Haydn offerings despite their uncontested “throwback” nature as to structure. The concertos, placed between the symphonies on all these discs, thus provide some aural breathing space for listeners as well as being finely wrought pleasantries in their own right.

     Symphonies Nos. 6, 7 and 8 are among the most virtuosic that Haydn ever wrote, containing a wealth of solo passages for violin, cello, double bass, bassoon, flute and horn. They were intended to impress Haydn’s then-new employer, Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, and likely also to engage the appreciation of the orchestra members, with many of whom Haydn was on friendly terms. There is a sense of camaraderie in these symphonies that stands out time and time again and that seems particularly well-suited to the approach of the Handel and Haydn Society players. The symphonies have a bit of tone painting – a sunrise here, some birdsong there, a storm elsewhere – but they are not really any sort of program music in the way that, say, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 would later be. Instead, they show Haydn shaping the form of the symphony itself, determining what to carry over from earlier times and what to introduce that is new, how to balance groups of instruments against each other, when to allow solo passages to stand out, and so forth. The Handel and Haydn Society treats them as essentially expanded, virtuosic chamber music, a stance that fits the music very well indeed.

     More than 20 years later, Haydn had fully solidified symphonic structure in essentially the form in which composers still use it today. The first three “Paris” symphonies show this quite clearly: there is a sureness to the themes and their development, a careful arrangement of keys, strikingly clear modulation from one to another, and orchestral balance that seems so right and natural that it is hard to believe it scarcely existed a few decades earlier. The subtitles of Symphonies Nos. 82 and 83 are not by Haydn – he did assign those of Nos. 6, 7 and 8 – but it is musically clear why those subtitles were thought up in the 19th century. It is also clear that Haydn was not consciously imitating a bear, a hen or anything else in these expanded, beautifully formed and often wryly, wittily amusing works of pure music. Christophers and his players present the symphonies with strength, clarity, rhythmic certainty, and exemplary sectional balance, so the music flows with a sense of inevitability that makes Haydn’s occasional, characteristic veering in unexpected directions that much more attractive. All the performances on these CDs are ones of great style, wonderfully informed historic authenticity, and enjoyment of the music, a totality of approach that renders these works, even the best-known among them, fresh, new, and thoroughly engaging.

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