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Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No 50 in C major; Symphony No 51 in Bb major; Symphony No 52 in C minor
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Bela Drahos
Recorded in the concert hall, Orebro, Sweden, August 2000
Haydn Symphonies series: Volume 27
NAXOS 8.555324 [63.33]


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This Haydn project is marching on and quickly filling your shelf space. We are now well into his so called ‘Sturm und drang’ period, around 1771-73, when Haydn became so radical and experimental that his position at the court of Prince Esterhazy was severely questioned. This style is a strong feature of the 52nd symphony and indeed some of the 51st. Not only Haydn but also his contemporaries, Gassmann, Vanhal and C.P.E. Bach conformed to its fashion. Its hallmarks are unison openings, scurrying scales, wide leaps in the thematic material, rushing repeated, often syncopated, notes in the upper strings, a bass line hammered out in quavers, or in crotchets; all, no doubt, part of a minor key language.

The 52nd symphony with its searching first movement and whirlwind finale is full of this type of music. The 51st is characterized by its use of high horns. The Menuetto, unusually has two trios although the first one was a later addition to offer an option to replace the much harder 2nd trio. The first horn goes well above the treble clef; the second horn goes below the bass clef … and remember these were the days before valves. In addition Haydn asks for hand-stopped notes in the second movement in a high passage set against muted strings. Obviously Haydn had a certain local virtuoso in mind.

Keith Anderson in his excellent if analytical essay does not mention this but H.C. Robbins Landon in the notes accompanying another recording of the Symphonies 51 and 52 (Sony SK 48371) with the Canadian group Tafelmusik comments that "Haydn’s first horn player, Carl Franz was an exceptional virtuoso" who was "reinstated into the orchestra at Esterhazy at Haydn’s request after his earlier resignation". Perhaps it was his return in 1771 that enabled Haydn to show off his exceptional skill.

The 50th Symphony was probably written for the visit of Empress Maria Theresa on August 31st 1773 (the numbering of these symphonies is quite a puzzle). Some of its music may well have come from the music for a puppet show (!) and the prelude to the opera Philemon and Baucis. This probably explains the slightly obscure cover picture, Bramantino’s ‘Philemon and Baucis’ (painted c. 1500). The Fiftieth is one of into this most celebratory of symphonies in that most jubilant of keys, C major. It is certainly a festive and exuberant work the first movement, in its stately introduction (a major feature of Haydn’s later symphonies) being almost baroque in its use of dotted rhythms.

I mentioned that I have also been listening to the CD recorded by Tafelmusik under Bruno Weil; they play on mostly 18th Century instruments. You might expect me to say that it is the horn solos in the 51st symphony which come out so very differently but in truth I can find little to comment on. It is, for me, in the sound of the strings that I notice the contrast and in the timpani. The Swedish Chamber Orchestra does not have the same cutting edge and attack. In the 52nd symphony I like their repeat of the exposition giving the finale more weight. However I don’t like the laboured way they go about the Menuetto which is, after all, marked Allegretto. The second movement lasting over nine minutes as opposed to Tafelmusik's less than eight is also too slow, bland and dull and seems to lose its way.

But these glitches will, I suspect, be irrelevant to many of you. For less than a fiver you can continue to build up your collection with three fine middle period works. If you are fussy about performances and prefer original instruments then obviously you should look elsewhere.

Very good quality recordings and a beautiful acoustic if a little bit light on the bass.

Gary Higginson

see also review by Colin Clarke

 



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