HAYDN Symphonies Nos 52, 53 & 59
Rebecca Miller has already proved her credentials at the more angsty end of the 18th-century symphony with her Editor’s Choice CPE Bach disc (5/15). Now she turns to the first manifestation of the Berlin Bach’s influence in a pair of works in Haydn’s Sturm und Drang style, plus one from a little later.
These are endlessly fascinating symphonies, symptoms of Haydn’s isolation at Eszterháza – the grand palace that Prince Nicolaus ‘The Magnificent’ built on a Hungarian swamp – and his furious innovation in orchestral and compositional technique. The Fire Symphony (late 1760s) crackles away with tremolando strings and hysterical horns, while the C minor work, No 52 (early 1770s), majors on the stark, Gluckian language Haydn was injecting into his symphonic writing at that time, complete with neo-Baroque falling diminished seventh figures and sudden extremes of dynamics. Miller fields a well-drilled string band of 24 players and allows her horn players off the leash to provide all the effects Haydn dreamt up for them – especially in the glorious high registers of the Fire Symphony.
No 53 comes from towards the end of the 1770s, when Haydn was cultivating a more consciously ‘entertaining’ style, and it is this work that is most successful on this disc. Flute and timpani add to a larger palette of sounds and the grandeur of the work seems to suit Miller’s imaginative approach, with some especially effective phrasing. As a bonus, a second version of the finale (in fact the boisterous Overture, HobIa/7, also later adapted for Symphony No 62) provides a contrast with the more demure first version.
These admirable performances make a worthwhile addition to the catalogue of the often-neglected middle-period symphonies. Just for comparison, I turned to favourite recordings by Harnoncourt in Nos 53 and 59. There the Vienna Concentus Musicus throw themselves at this music with just a touch more abandon and Harnoncourt revels in Haydn’s effects just a touch more gleefully – even if he only offers the one finale for L’Impériale. Miller for some reason includes a harpsichord in No 59 but not in the others.