Rediscovering Haydn's symphonies, period style

Richard Wigmore Mon 9th January 2017

Ottavio Dantone’s recording Haydn’s Symphonies Nos 79 and 81 is further evidence that, on period instruments especially, Haydn sounds fiercely original, writes Richard Wigmore

Haydn (picture from Tully Potter Collection)

Haydn (picture from Tully Potter Collection)

Competition - you can win Decca's box-set of the complete Haydn symphonies performed on period instruments here.

Back in the 1930s, Donald Tovey famously dubbed Haydn ‘the Inaccessible’. In those days most of his music was not even in print, while public performances of his works were confined to a clutch of mainly late symphonies and quartets, plus the two great oratorios. Whole swathes of symphonies numbered in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s were as good as unknown. Despite the advocacy of Tovey and conductors such as Beecham and Bruno Walter, Haydn was still a victim of the Romantic view, initiated by ETA Hoffmann, of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven as three stages in an unbroken evolutionary process. He was simultaneously respected as a musical father figure, the ‘inventor’ of the sonata style, and patronised for his amiability and ‘childlike’ naivety: a figure of prelapsarian innocence in an age that revered heroes and rebels. The once-affectionate nickname ‘Papa’ (which apparently even Haydn’s parrot picked up) was now used condescendingly of a composer who – in contrast to the mercurial, ultimately ‘tragic’ Mozart and the fist-shaking, destiny-defying Beethoven – had spent his career as a liveried servant of the discredited aristocracy.

Today, more than two centuries after his death, Haydn has regained much of the prestige he enjoyed in his lifetime. Thanks initially to the pioneering efforts of that indefatigable one-man Haydn industry, HC Robbins Landon, most of his huge output is now available in reliable critical editions. Virtually his entire oeuvre can now be heard on CD, from the once-unknown operas to the reams of baryton trios he composed to satisfy a strange obsession of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy. Haydn the subversive, Haydn the paradoxical, Haydn the peerless master of complex and subtle games holds a unique fascination both for professional musicians (not least composers) and many music lovers. Like Mozart, he has benefited immeasurably from performances that aim to recreate the colours, balances and articulations of the late 18th century. The results have been to make his works sound even more fiercely original, certainly less comfortable, with their un-Mozartian rough edges sharpened rather than planed. No one can hear, say, Trevor Pinnock’s recordings of the Sturm und Drang symphonies, or Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s ‘Paris’ set and still talk of dear old ‘Papa Haydn’.

‘Haydn was looking to the future but he was simultaneously tied to the emotional world of the past. With period instruments, one can better recreate the expression of those emotions’ – Ottavio Dantone

And yet…Not even the most fervent Haydn aficionado could claim him as a truly popular composer enjoying the iconic status of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or Wagner. Tovey notwithstanding, comparisons with Mozart – usually adverse – even now colour many people’s perception of Haydn, just as irrelevant comparisons with Brahms long dogged Bruckner. Nor has Haydn ever had record company executives salivating. Riding gloomy boardroom predictions, Antal Dorati’s pioneering symphony cycle proved to be one of the unlikely commercial successes of the early 1970s. Two decades later, with the ‘authentic’ movement in full swing, there appeared three CD cycles on period instruments, from Roy Goodman (Hyperion), Christopher Hogwood (Decca) and Bruno Weil (Sony). Yet by 1996 the writing was on the wall for all three. The old saw about Haydn not selling had again proved depressingly accurate. Decca pulled the plug after 10 volumes and 77 symphonies, Hyperion after 17 discs containing 57 works, and Sony after just seven discs and 21 works. Meanwhile the slowly evolving modern-instrument Haydn symphony cycle from Adám Fischer and his Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra finally reached completion in 2001. For many collectors Fischer superseded his fellow Hungarian Dorati as the benchmark, not least for his livelier tempos, in minuets especially, and an altogether lustier response to Haydn’s antic humour.

Sixteen years into the new millennium, an integrated Haydn symphony cycle on period instruments is as elusive as ever. Decca, which came frustratingly close to the finishing line, has done the next best thing and assembled a composite cycle using three different conductors and orchestras: Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music for Nos 1-77, Frans Brüggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century for Nos 82-104 (originally issued by Decca’s sister label, Philips), with new versions of the ‘missing’ Nos 78-81 from Ottavio Dantone and his Accademia Bizantina.

Reflecting on why record companies have been slower to tackle Haydn than Mozart symphonies on period instruments, the Italian harpsichordist-conductor cites the often idiosyncratic nature of the music – one reason why Haydn has always tended to lag behind in popularity. ‘On paper, and on a first and perhaps superficial reading, Haydn’s music is less communicative to the general public,’ he says. ‘Mozart – and for that matter Bach – works perfectly on both modern and period instruments. Haydn’s music requires close study of the various rhetorical codes and many other details.

‘In general it is easier to bring out the nuances and details of sonority in Haydn’s symphonies when they are performed on period instruments, with Baroque bows and gut strings. Haydn was looking to the future in the structure of his music, but he was simultaneously tied to the emotional world of the past. With period instruments one can better recreate the expression of those emotions, making the musical dialogue easier to grasp on an emotional and formal level. Varied articulation and the selective use of vibrato, portamento and messa di voce are all more easily achieved on period instruments, making this music naturally more expressive.’

It would be disingenuous to claim every Haydn symphony as a masterpiece. But from the relatively slight works of the late 1750s and early 1760s, full of colour and energy, to the ripe mastery of the ‘Paris’ and ‘London’ sets, nearly every work is gloriously unpredictable in strategy and structure. Many delight in creating miracles from the minimum of material. There is wit and humour aplenty. But, as the American musicologist Daniel Chua put it, ‘If you hear only happiness in Haydn the joke is on you.’ Far from being the avuncular funster of popular myth, Haydn is in many ways a cerebral composer. Not for nothing has fellow composer Robin Holloway dubbed him ‘music’s supreme intellectual’.

Ottavio Dantone agrees: ‘If we compare Haydn with Mozart, his compositional style is more complex, more refined and seemingly aimed more at connoisseurs. His simplicity is only skin-deep. The way Haydn constructs and interrelates music phrases to create larger forms is incredibly complex. But this complexity is often anything but immediate.’

The four symphonies Dantone has recorded to fill the void date from 1782-84, when Haydn was leading something of a double life as opera impresario at the Esterházy court and composer of instrumental music for the voracious international market. (Haydn was by then far and away Europe’s most bankable composer.) All four works marry a tuneful, ‘popular’ manner – especially in their finales – with immense compositional sophistication. Surprise and subversion await at every corner, while the symphonies’ expressive range makes nonsense of the ‘Papa’ sobriquet. Perhaps the best known of the four, No 80 in D minor juxtaposes the vehement and the flippant in a way Mozart would never have countenanced. Its first movement opens in churning Sturm und Drang mode, then becomes progressively hijacked by a footling Ländler that could have been whistled on any Viennese street corner – though the upshot is more unsettling than comic. Haydn the humourist runs riot in the D major finale, whose syncopated opening – fashioned so that we do not initially hear it as syncopated – initiates a movement of controlled comic mayhem.

In contrast to this inspired bizarrerie, the driving, angular opening Allegro of No 78 in C minor – the last of a set of three symphonies intended for an aborted trip to England – is wholly serious, exploiting the dramatic and contrapuntal potential of its initial unison motif.

Both these superb minor-keyed symphonies have been recorded before on period instruments, No 78 in Roy Goodman’s Hyperion series, No 80 by Gottfried von der Goltz and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi). But the two major-keyed works, Nos 79 and 81, both rarities, are making their overdue period debuts on disc. The urbane No 79 in F specialises in creating, and then puncturing, an illusion of innocence. Dantone particularly relishes what he calls ‘the wild gypsy outbursts’ that rough up the otherwise dapper contredanse finale.

Symphony No 81 in G is a richer, more complex work, with a dissonant opening that has subtle and poetic consequences later in the movement and a beautiful theme-and-variations Andante on a gently lilting 6/8 melody. Dantone savours the ‘extreme contrast between the first movements of the four symphonies’, especially the ‘Sturm und Drang turbulence’ of Nos 78 and 80, where the more astringent timbres of period instruments pay obvious dividends. Yet it was the little-performed and, on the surface, more emotionally equable No 81 that came as something of an epiphany to Dantone.

‘I was particularly fascinated by the Andante, a profoundly poetic and expressive movement, with a minor-keyed variation of rare poignancy. But in each of the four movements there were many moments of revelation.’ He continues: ‘It may seem strange to say it, but when away from my studio, in the middle of some mundane activity, I often had sudden insights about particular passages in the score and the extremely subtle emotional dynamics hidden within them. When I tried them out with the orchestra, the insights worked well in practice. It’s a truism that one of the joys of this profession is that the more deeply one knows the music, the more intense one’s emotional involvement. But it has never been more so than with these four wonderful Haydn symphonies.’

During the rather muted bicentenary celebrations of 2009, it was suggested that Haydn, for all his miraculous inventiveness, was always destined to be something of a connoisseur’s composer. If we exclude The Creation, the Nelson Mass and a handful of late, named symphonies, box-office receipts tend to bear this out. While an imminent integrated period symphony cycle remains a pipe dream, on CD Haydn has never had it so good. Turning Tovey’s dictum on its head, ‘Haydn the Accessible’ – not least the once-sidelined symphonies of the 1770s and early ‘80s – is there to be discovered by anyone in sympathy with a composer at once companionable, paradoxical and curiously inscrutable.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about our latest subscription offers, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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