How can anyone not like Haydn?

Philip Kennicott Thu 19th February 2015

Philip Kennicott on discovering a rare, benighted breed – the Haydn-hater

Joseph Haydn

On the road again, the skies sunny, the traffic surprisingly light. Just open asphalt, two sets of Haydn symphonies to choose from, and the pleasant company of a good friend who I assume has excellent taste, which is to say, of course, taste corresponding exactly to my own.

And then a shock: he doesn’t want to listen to Haydn. This isn’t expressed as a preference but an absolute. It’s not that he is bored with, or at the moment not particularly interested in Haydn. Rather, he absolutely forbids it. It’s as if I had brought with me Florence Foster Jenkins singing Erwartung accompanied by an ensemble of kazoos. He will not suffer Haydn.

This is baffling. How can anyone not like Haydn? I quickly scan him for signs of head trauma. Nothing. It seems that his aversion is sincere, unrelated to ageing, injury or mental debility. It is a freakish, unaccountable condition that defies explanation.

This will be a long trip. The Haydn festivities of 2009 brought forth such an abundance of new recordings that the discs have been piling up. The Naxos complete Haydn box­sets have been all but overwhelming, in a good way and, sad to say, I haven’t yet devoted the required three hours to Il ritorno di Tobia, the mystery oratorio that has been staring at me reprovingly for six months.

On this journey, I’ve brought two very different versions of the symphonies, the ‘London’ Symphonies by Marc Minkowski with Les Musiciens du Louvre, and the Vienna Philharmonic edition that includes readings by conductors as diverse as Pierre Boulez, Christoph von Dohnányi, Zubin Mehta, Franz Welser­-Möst and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The Minkowski set has attracted considerable attention, mostly, it seems, for an odd little joke that enlivens the Andante of the Surprise symphony. Minkowski plays fast and loose with the eponymous 'surprise', the orchestral outburst that gives the almost mindless little melody its philosophical sophistication. Once, he omits it altogether; then substitutes a collective shout from the orchestra; and then plays it as written. The shout, which elicits laughter from the audience, is interesting primarily for its soprano texture: could Haydn have ever imagined his symphonies played by an orchestra so full of women? As a musical gesture, it sounds contrived, the sort of shout you get when you tell a bunch of people not ordinarily given to shouting to shout on cue.

Much has been made of this shout, to the exclusion of the otherwise extraordinary readings of these masterpieces. Tempi are fast, the orchestral timbre bright and the playing taut, polished, and scintillating. Everything that used to irk the old-guard purists about the period-instrument movement two generations ago has been taken to its logical extension. Minkowski is to period Haydn what Solti was to the old, grand style. I adore these readings and they make a very welcome contrast to some of the more ponderous sounds whipped up by the maestros featured on the Vienna discs. Of Welser­-Möst’s Haydn, I can say only what I also say of his new Wagner disc: yawn. But the Boulez reading of Symphony No 104 is magisterial and warm, and not at all in the usual ‘X­-ray’ style for which he is unjustly infamous.

Harnoncourt’s Haydn has his usual bull-in-­a-­china-­shop bravado. He also gives a little speech in which he explains, among other things, that the concertmaster will perform the violin solo in Symphony No 103 on the same violin that Viotti used at the premiere of the symphony. And he prepares the audience for an extended timpani introduction in place of the usual drum roll. Minkowksi also interpolates an extended timpani ‘intrada’ in his version, which is even more manic than Harnoncourt’s.

I think we’re getting closer to an explanation of why some poor, deceived souls simply don’t like Haydn. He was an attention grabber, an innovator with his eye on the squirming front row, a composer for whom il faut être absolument moderne. So many of Haydn’s thoughts feel short and frantic, as if he’s worried that finishing a sentence may bore his auditors; and why bother, given how much more there is to say? Conductors are naturally drawn to music like this, with its implicit invitation to do nothing the same way twice, to surprise, delight and titillate. There is an energy to the ideas, in the 'London' Symphonies especially, which is inexhaustible and exhausting at the same time. Everything is strangely shaped and oddly proportioned, no movement lasting quite as long or short as it should, no label on the box – Andante, Menuet, Adagio – quite accurately describing the contents.

How can you not love this music? I’m quite insistent to my beleaguered passenger, arguing my case, laying out the logical impossibility of someone disliking Haydn qua Haydn. It is a mistake in perception, an imbalance of subtle humours easily remedied – but only with great doses of Haydn. Not liking Haydn is almost a moral failing, and one shouldn’t advertise these things in public. Much has been made of this shout, to the exclusion of the otherwise extraordinary readings of these masterpieces. Tempi are fast, the orchestral timbre bright and the playing taut, polished and scintillating. Everything that used to irk the old­ guard purists about the period Haydn: how could anyone not like him?

My defence of Haydn is pouring out in a stream of enthusiasm, but it’s making no headway. I realise that I’m being as annoying as Haydn is to people who resist his kind, torrential energy. I give up. There are basic habits of grammar, a fundamentally distinctive periodicity to Haydn, that simply rub some people the wrong way. I drive on, in glum silence, and leave this mystery to medicine and science.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Gramophone.

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