HAYDN Symphonies Nos 57, 67 & 68
Nicholas McGegan and his San Francisco-based forces delve into a trio of symphonies that have been largely neglected outside of complete cycles. They don’t have the stark dramatics of Sturm und Drang to recommend them; and they are neither suitably early to demonstrate the seeds of future achievements nor suitably late to show mature mastery. Nevertheless, each is fascinating in its own way. Lighter in tone than certain symphonies of the preceding decade, No 57 (1774) features a slow movement that alternates plucked and bowed phrases, a Ländler-like Minuet and a frenzied tarantella finale. No 67, from a year or two later, is possibly an assemblage of pieces of theatrical music, the Trio of its minuet deploying two solo violins, the second with its lower string tuned down a tone to provide a rustic drone. Both have been recorded on period instruments before, in Christopher Hogwood’s sporadically available aborted cycle (L’Oiseau-Lyre, 5/98, 9/99), but these live performances are a touch grittier, less manicured – and with suitably prominent horn parts.
Symphony No 68 is a slightly different matter. It is a favourite of Harnoncourt’s (it is appended to his ‘London’ Symphonies set), perhaps because of its elevated eccentricities: the timebomb-tick of the slow movement, with its gathering rhythmic momentum, and the amusing distractions of the finale. Interestingly, while second-half repeats are not observed in the two earlier symphonies, in No 68 all repeats are observed. It’s the best of the three symphonies, so it’s good to hear more of it, but a black mark for inconsistency nonetheless. (On the other hand, it means three symphonies fit on a single disc.) McGegan is no mean Haydn conductor; I wonder if he might soon turn to Symphonies Nos 79 and 81 – the only two of the 106 yet to be recorded on period instruments – before someone else beats him to it.