Magazine article Gramophone

Rediscovering Haydn, Period Style

Magazine article Gramophone

Rediscovering Haydn, Period Style

Article excerpt

Ottavio Dantone's new disc marks the premiere recordings on period instruments of Haydn's Symphonies Nos 79 and 81. Comprising part of a forthcoming complete period symphony cycle from three different conductors, this recording is further evidence that, on period instruments especially, Haydn sounds fiercely original, writes Richard Wigmore.

Back in the 1930s, Donald Tovey famously dubbed Haydn 'the Inaccessible'. In those days most of his music was not even in print, while public performances of his works were confined to a clutch of mainly late symphonies and quartets, plus the two great oratorios. Whole swathes of symphonies numbered in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s were as good as unknown. Despite the advocacy if of Tovey and conductors such as Beecham and Bruno Walter, Haydn was still a victim of the Romantic view, initiated by ETA Hoffmann, of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven as three stages in an unbroken evolutionary process. He was simultaneously respected as a musical father figure, the 'inventor' of the sonata style, and patronised for his amiability and 'childlike' naivety: a figure of prelapsarian innocence in an age that revered heroes and rebels. The once-affectionate nickname 'Papa' (which apparently even Haydn's parrot picked up) was now used condescendingly of a composer who--in contrast to the mercurial, ultimately 'tragic' Mozart and the fist-shaking, destiny-defying Beethoven--had spent his career as a liveried servant of the discredited aristocracy.

Today, more than two centuries after his death, Haydn has regained much of the prestige he enjoyed in his lifetime. Thanks initially to the pioneering efforts of that indefatigable one-man Haydn industry, HC Robbins Landon, most of his huge output is now available in reliable critical editions. Virtually his entire oeuvre can now be heard on CD, from the once-unknown operas to the reams of baryton trios he composed to satisfy a strange obsession of Prince Nicolaus Esterhazy. Haydn the subversive, Haydn the paradoxical, Haydn the peerless master of complex and subtle games holds a unique fascination both for professional musicians (not least composers) and many music lovers. Like Mozart, he has benefited immeasurably from performances that aim to recreate the colours, balances and articulations of the late 18th century. The results have been to make his works sound even more fiercely original, certainly less comfortable, with their un-Mozartian rough edges sharpened rather than planed. No one can hear, say, Trevor Pinnock's recordings of the Sturm und. Drang symphonies, or Nikolaus Harnoncourt's 'Paris' set and still talk of dear old 'Papa Haydn'.

And yet ... Not even the most fervent Haydn aficionado could claim him as a truly popular composer enjoying the iconic status of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or Wagner. Tovey notwithstanding, comparisons with Mozart--usually adverse--even now colour many people's perception of Haydn, just as irrelevant comparisons with Brahms long dogged Bruckner. Nor has Haydn ever had record company executives salivating. Riding gloomy boardroom predictions, Antal Dorati's pioneering symphony cycle proved to be one of the unlikely commercial successes of the early 1970s. Two decades later, with the 'authentic' movement in full swing, there appeared three CD cycles on period instruments, from Roy Goodman (Hyperion), Christopher Hogwood (Decca) and Bruno Weil (Sony). Yet by 1996 the writing was on the wall for all three. The old saw about Haydn not selling had again proved depressingly accurate. Decca pulled the plug after 10 volumes and 77 symphonies, Hyperion after 17 discs containing 57 works, and Sony after just seven discs and 21 works. Meanwhile the slowly evolving modern-instrument Haydn symphony cycle from Adam Fischer and his Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra finally reached completion in 2001. For many collectors Fischer superseded his fellow Hungarian Dorati as the benchmark, not least for his livelier tempos, in minuets especially, and an altogether lustier response to Haydn's antic humour. …

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