No wonder Josef Haydn’s music is held in such high esteem. Here was a man who could compose thematically fresh and original symphonies written, more often than not, as very high class party music.
In this recording, reissued from Teldec’s long running set of symphony recordings with Harnoncourt and his Concentus musicus, we get a most satisfying sampling of contrasts.
We open with the Symphony no. 30, nicknamed "Alleluia" because of its quote from the Easter liturgy. Here we are treated to more than just background music for the conversations, meals and card games that would have been happening as it was played. Haydn cleverly disguises the liturgical quote in inner voices until it is brought to theRead more fore toward the end of the opening movement. Having gained the attention of his audience, he then treats them to a couple of delightful and delicate solo passages from the flute and oboe. He closes the work with a finale that is far more subdued that one might expect.
One of his most successful works in the genre, the fifty-third symphony, was extremely popular and copies of it were available all over Europe. This was in spite of the fact that the composer’s princely patron had rather lost interest in symphonies; tired, in particular, of those harmonically and formally challenging works of the so-called Sturm und Drang period. The work opens with a movement that was not only somewhat long in duration for its era, but also rich in chromatic harmonies and irregular resolutions of dissonance. The fourth movement presented here is one of at least four possibilities, as due to Prince Esterházy’s predilection for lighter music, Haydn cribbed the last movement of his more serious work for use in theatre pieces and entertainment music.
Unlike others of his "named" symphonies, Haydn himself coined the nickname "Loudon" for this work, after a very popular military Field Marshal, Baron von Laudon, or Loudon. Haydn scholars do not place this symphony amongst the most outstanding of his works, giving credence to the belief that the music perhaps closely reflected the tastes of its dedicatee, thus limiting Haydn’s adventuresome bent.
In the early days of the period performance movement, Harnoncourt recordings were often used as my strongest argument for the use of modern instruments. More often than not I found them to be screechy, thin and out of tune. Now that there have been nearly forty years of practice and refinement one cannot help but find these performances expertly rendered and completely satisfying. Tempi have settled down into something other than fast for fast’s sake, and the contrasts of color and articulation have developed into something more uniform and less purely "different" from that of a modern symphony orchestra. Intonation and ensemble are fine throughout, and Harnoncourt has managed to capture all the drama, humor and elegance with which these scores are rife.
I am a bit surprised to see these performances, first issued throughout the 1990s at full price, make an appearance at budget level so soon. This is so much the better for the consumer, however, as these are first order renditions, well documented, with excellent sound quality if perhaps in only somewhat bland and generic packages.
There are a number of other comparative choices, not the least of which is the excellent traversal on Naxos under Bela Drahos. But among its other virtues, discs such as this confound the long-standing belief that good music must come at a high price. A nice addition to any library, this comes highly recommended.