HAYDN Symphonies Nos 1, 39 & 49 GLUCK Don Juan
Gluck is never likely to be mistaken for one of the 18th century’s great melodists. He will be remembered, though, as one of the godfathers of Sturm und Drang, the newly dramatic instrumental language that swept through the continent’s symphonies from the mid 1760s. His ballet Don Juan meanders along fairly amiably for almost 20 minutes, only for the horses to be well and truly frightened in the last number, in which Don Juan is taunted by the Furies and dragged down to the Underworld. Suddenly the pleasant galanterie falls away to be replaced by minor-key tonality, shuddering and scything strings, braying horns, harsh dissonances and extremes of dynamic.
Haydn was among the first to pick up Gluck’s gauntlet in his G minor Symphony, No 39 (1765), notable not only for this new vocabulary (which must have made the Esterházys spit their afternoon tea across the ballroom) but also for the presence of four rather than the usual two horns. His example spread like wildfire, inspiring G minor, horn-dominated symphonies by JC Bach, Vanhal, Ordoñez and even Mozart (K183). Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico play this music for all its worth, with super-accurate violin work in fast scalic passages, wailing oboes and, of course, horns given headroom to pierce through the texture.
Symphony No 39 was far from a one-off in Haydn’s output: No 49 from around three years later is in the even more austere key of F minor and only allows the balm of F major to be felt briefly in the Trio of the Minuet. This is a sinfonia da chiesa, opening with a whole slow movement before proceeding with a nervy Allegro, then the Minuet and finale. As if to remind us of more innocent times, the disc concludes with Haydn’s First Symphony, composed some time during the late 1750s, its three movements and ‘Mannheim crescendo’ barely hinting at the great things to come over the ensuing half a century.
No 39’s slow movement is perhaps a notch too fast for some; both Minuets too. A harpsichord chunters away in the background of No 1 (and there’s an odd noise, like someone’s leg falling off, at 3'11" in the first movement). This is the first in a series devised to ‘[shed] new light on [Haydn’s] symphonic output through a dialogue with other composers’. On the evidence of this tautly played and imaginative programme, further instalments will be eagerly awaited.