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(1732 - 1809)
Symphony No 66 in B flat major. 21.23
Symphony No 67 in F major 25.15
Symphony No 68 in B Flat Major 29.18
Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia Bela Drahos
Recorded Phoenix Studio, Budapest 19 - 23 January 1998 Naxos 8.554406 [76.05]

As so often when listening to Joseph Haydn's music one has such a strong feeling that here was a happy man. The impression given so strongly by his work is of his inner feeling of contentment and ease with his lot.

This latest CD from Naxos gives us three Symphonies from the mid 1770s when Haydn was fully established at the Esterhazy Court and had control over its musical requirements. His duties demanded a large varied output - opera, ceremonial music, church music, and instrumental pieces for the innumerable social events in the household. As his duties involved performing and supervising as well as writing one wonders how it was all fitted in. Possibly this fact of being constantly busy had something to do with living until he was 77 - a considerable lifespan for his time. After all, conductors down the generations seem to be generally long lived.

The works on the disc are before Haydn's final development of the Symphonic form as typified later in his last twelve great symphonies, but the depth and variety clearly show the way he was going.

The three Symphonies on the disc each have the conventional four movements in the standard sequence that had become established by then. The B Flat Major (No 66) has a lively Allegro with an attractive first theme, the Adagio uses muted strings and a tiny pizzicato interpolation. The Minuet is full of elegance and its linked Trio has a charming passage with bassoon and oboe doubling the first violin line. The Finale is largely in the form of a rondo and makes considerable use of a simple short phrase.

No 67 (Naxos would have made it easier with the occasional named symphony) again shows us 'Papa' Haydn at his most charming. A foot-tapping 6/8 time sets the liveliest of starts in the Presto opening movement, which leads to an Adagio which includes a canon for first and second violins. Another graceful Minuet and Trio includes another of the composer's innovations in the use of a drone bass from one of a pair of muted solo violins. The 'experiments' continue in the Allegro last movement as Haydn chooses to write for a string trio for an added adagio before returning to the full orchestra and tempo by stages. Haydn was once quoted as saying that where he was employed was so remote that he had to be original as there was no-one to confuse him. This disc helps to show what he meant.

In No 68 in B Flat Major we see again what a happily integrated orchestra the Esterhazy is. Its members are drawn from the ranks of the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra and includes the Orchestra's wind principals. Throughout the three works the excellent work of the wind players is a constant delight. The opening Vivace, alert as ever, leads to an unusually placed second movement minuet full of delightful shading contrasts. The Adagio Cantabile - the longest movement on the disc by some measure - has its chief variety from the use of different dynamic levels. The Presto - Finale with a lively rondo is yet another foot-tapping passage of great charm.

This is a most enjoyable CD - well played, well recorded and soundly chosen material. Recommended.


Harry Downey

But David Wright is less sure

I have always found that Haydn had periods of writing rather ordinary symphonies and, at other times, a stream of magnificent symphonies. To my mind symphonies 39 to 48 inclusive are simply splendid ... the two great C major symphonies numbers 41 and 48 respectively are priceless, particularly in the recordings by the superlative Trevor Pinnock. Did it have something to do with Nikolaus building the palace of Esterháza at the time? His symphonies numbered in the seventies are also very fine. As with Mozart, Haydn was at home in E flat and its relative minor, C minor as in symphonies 74, 76 and 78. One of his last symphonies, 99, was also in E flat. In fact symphony 95 is in C minor and is a real joy. Numbers 95 - 99 are among his best.

The three symphonies on this CD are 'preparing' for the fine symphonies of the 70s. They are engaging works although they seem to be composed to a well-worn and trusty method. They are not his most original works and therefore not among his best.

I found the recording a little worrying. Low notes buzzed on each of my recording equipment and the sound was somewhat rough at times. It lacked polish and elegance thus robbing the music of its charm.

But there is much to admire. Haydn's genius in his monothematic movements such as the finale of number 66. And, as I have often said, Haydn wrote real allegros unlike Bruckner, Sibelius or Elgar ... although I hasten to add that Bruckner and Sibelius were composers of great ability. Years ago I worked with Stanford Robinson on Symphony No 67 which begins quietly but maintains its rhythm adding to the music's coherence. It also has a good sense of humour, the third excellent Haydnesque quality mentioned so far. In this symphony Haydn takes on an original campaign. There is a canon in the slow movement which ends with a few bars played col legno. The trio in the minuet calls for the G string to be tuned down a major second giving the sound of a drone. Incidentally, have you ever noticed the bagpipe drone in the Symphony No 88? Having praised Haydn for his real allegros the allegro finale of 67 has a slow movement within it. It makes for an unsatisfactory conclusion.

I shall not forget a BBC lunchtime concert in the mid 1960s when the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra under Rae Jenkins were to conclude their hour long programme with this symphony and 'we had to leave the concert' in the finale to 'give way to the one o'clock news'.

There is a lack of vitality in the opening vivace of Symphony No 68. There isn't the spring, the bounce or the exuberance and, as through the disc, the sound is a little dull. The minuet plods and the slow movement ... note it is in E flat ... lacks grace in this performance. The final rondo is another bitty Haydn movement. At one stage he seems to emulate his splendid Symphony No 39 in G minor with a passage in this key which is dark.

Not Haydn's best nor the best performances. Dorati and the Philharmonia Hungarica are far better.


David Wright




Harry Downey

David Wright

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