September 14, 2023


Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 93-95. Danish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Adam Fischer. Naxos. $13.99.

Vivaldi: Concerti per violino XI (“Per Anna Maria”), RV 179a, 207, 229, 260, 261, and 263. Europa Galante conducted by Fabio Biondi. Naïve. $16.99.

     Between 1987 and 2001, Adam Fischer conducted an orchestra he created to perform Haydn’s works – the Austro Hungarian Haydn Orchestra – in a monumental recording of all 104 Haydn symphonies. He recorded them completely out of order, starting with No. 101 and ending with No. 33, and has stated that around 1996 he and the musicians came to understand elements of Haydn very differently from the way they had until that point, with the result that symphonies recorded from then on were conceived and executed in rather significantly changed ways when compared with the approaches taken earlier in the project. Furthermore, since the orchestra was assembled from musicians who were otherwise employed in some of Europe’s finest orchestras – all of which use modern instruments – Fischer’s magnum opus was produced in a manner that was distinctive but most definitely not historically correct. The 33-CD set nevertheless remains a remarkable achievement and can justifiably become the cornerstone of any Haydn lover’s collection. And now Fischer is revisiting the Haydn symphonies yet again, with yet another viewpoint (or set of viewpoints) – although, unfortunately, this time there will be no attempt at a complete set: Naxos will be releasing Fischer’s new versions of 25 of the late symphonies, all performed by the Danish Chamber Orchestra. Haydn himself was infinitely inventive and spent much of his compositional life looking for and finding ways to do things very differently from the ways he had done them previously. So Fischer’s new contributions to recorded Haydn certainly follow in some notable footsteps: the composer’s. What remains to be seen is whether this new set of recordings offers genuine insight into Haydn or is merely capricious, doing things differently simply to be different. The evidence from the first release, which includes Symphonies Nos. 93-95, is mixed, although the overall effect of the disc is a very positive one. Fischer clearly wants to communicate, to a 21st-century audience, some of the surprises and unusual approaches that made Haydn the most-popular composer of his time and that to this day bedevil music historians: Haydn’s name was so valuable that many, many non-Haydn works were attributed to him, their true provenance still being sorted out two centuries later.

     Fischer’s basic concept in this recording is to emphasize elements of the symphonies for modern ears that are less receptive to musical nuance than were those of Haydn’s own time. This means forte elements are often ff, while piano ones may be quiet to the point of near-inaudibility; instrumental emphases, especially those of brass and timpani, are accentuated to the point of overstatement; and tempos are, as a rule, brisker and more headlong in the fast movements than in most performances.

     Fischer’s new approach is at its best in Symphony No. 93. He accentuates the slowness of the first movement’s Adagio beginning to such an extent that the main movement’s Allegro assai sounds much perkier and brighter than usual, and he avoids slowing things down too much for the Largo cantabile second movement (which has the slowest tempo indication of any movement in these three symphonies). The “singing” aspects of the music are nevertheless well-handled, and the last two movements get a bright and forthright presentation that is thoroughly winning. On the other hand, the best-known of these three symphonies, No. 94 (“Surprise”), fares the least well here. No doubt because the work is familiar, Fischer tries somewhat too hard to make it sound new, extending pauses just a bit too much, slowing down at inappropriate points so he can speed up afterwards in a bid for greater emphasis, and generally sacrificing much of the forward momentum of the first and last movements by turning them into stop-and-start pieces. On the other hand, some of Fischer’s emendations are excellent, especially in the hyper-famous second movement: it starts so quietly as to be almost unheard, after which the repeat of the opening measures is softer yet – so the loud drumbeat (which results in the work’s German title, Symphonie mit dem Paukenschlag) is every bit as startling as Haydn intended, and probably nearly as big a surprise as the composer intended it to be despite the fact that modern audiences know it is coming. Symphony No. 95 works better than No. 94 but not quite as well as No. 93. This is the only one of Haydn’s final 12 symphonies in a minor key (C minor): the composer learned that his London audiences did not much care for works in the minor, so the crowd-pleasing composer wrote his final nine symphonies in major keys. The symphony is, however, a very fine one: it is compressed (the shortest of the three on this disc) and, although scarcely intense, delves a bit more deeply into emotional substrata than Haydn usually did at this point in his life (although scarcely as deeply as during his Sturm und Drang period). Fischer gives the symphony its due, balancing its poise against its emotion effectively and allowing the music to flow naturally much of the time. However, he periodically indulges in some of the overdone rubato that he uses in No. 94, and that inevitably interferes with the musical progress and undermines Haydn’s communicative power.

     It is certainly true that Fischer’s reinterpretations have exciting, unexpected and often clever aspects: his 25-symphony cycle is likely to be full of surprises and attractive touches. But it is also true that Fischer now seems to think that Haydn-as-Haydn is somehow not quite enough for a modern audience – just as he continues to prefer performances on modern instruments, Fischer looks for greater emotive modernity in Haydn than the composer really possesses. There is much to be said for presenting Haydn in ways to which a new generation of listeners will more likely gravitate. But it is important, at the same time, not to lose sight of the reasons Haydn’s music still has something to say more than two centuries after the composer’s death. Fischer’s new readings, despite being played with tremendous felicity by the Danish Chamber Orchestra, are somewhat uneven in their effectiveness, but his desire to find ways to connect Haydn to the audiences of today is entirely admirable.

     The massive undertaking that is the Vivaldi Edition on Naïve represents a connection (or re-connection) of another sort. Vivaldi’s fame has long been tied to a vanishingly small percentage of his music: The Four Seasons, which represent only one-third of a single Vivaldi opus. And even those four hyper-famous violin concertos are a mere drop in the proverbial bucket of Vivaldi’s concerto creativity: the latest Vivaldi Edition release, which is No. 71 in the total series, is the 11th containing violin concertos, with more still to come. All the music in this series was found at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin, and in many cases exists nowhere else. So the series is a remarkable (and remarkably extended) work of scholarship as well as a multi-decade musical endeavor. And again and again, it shows just how cleverly and intelligently Vivaldi used a standardized concerto form to produce works whose effects differ greatly. Performers such as Europa Galante under Fabio Biondi are among the reasons for the unfailingly high quality of these Vivaldi recordings, including this latest one. The Anna Maria of the disc’s title lived from 1696 to 1782 and was the most famous instrumental player at the Ospedale della Pietà, with which Vivaldi was associated from 1703 to 1740. Anna Maria played violin, viola d’amore, theorbo, cello, lute, mandolin and harpsichord; and on the basis of the approximately two dozen concertos that Vivaldi wrote for her, she was certainly a considerable violin virtuoso. Different works on the CD show this in varying ways. The disc opens with RV 229, which starts with a remarkable cadenza-like double-stopped passage before the ensemble enters. Next is RV 363, known as Il corneto da posta because it is pervaded by an imitation of the posthorn’s characteristic octave leaps: they appear in all three movements, with the solo violin weaving some delightful filigree around them from time to time. RV 207 is distinguished by a second movement in which the ensemble plays pizzicato throughout, sounding like an oversize guitar, while the solo violin’s melancholy sound is apt for a movement marked Largo. RV 260 features particularly elaborate solo material in the first movement, including in the violin’s upper register. RV 179a has a Largo filled with ornamentation that, unusually for this time period, is entirely written-out, probably by Anna Maria herself; this concerto exists in different versions and was assembled and reconstructed for this recording. The CD ends with RV 261, a somewhat curious work in that it is not a piece requiring substantial virtuosity – its most-interesting element is the inclusion of a second solo violin in portions of the opening movement. Vivaldi’s concertos, especially those for violin, were long dismissed as being essentially all the same – because their form is almost always the same. But as the Vivaldi Edition repeatedly shows, and the excellent playing of performers like these demonstrates again and again, Vivaldi did a consistently remarkable job of ringing changes on a largely standardized format, resulting in works that are quite distinct from each other – as is clear when listeners simply take the time to think of them as individual pieces rather than as a group.

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