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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphonies - Vol. 30
Symphony no.14 in A (c.1761-3) [15:58]
Symphony no.15 in D (c.1760) [19:12]
Symphony no.16 in B flat (c.1760-1763) [14:36]
Symphony no.17 in F (c.1760-1762) [18:56]
Toronto Camerata/Kevin Mallon
rec. 18-20 July 2004, Grace Church on the Hill, Toronto, Canada
NAXOS 8.557656 [68:42]

These are very early works, but Haydn rarely fails to surprise and delight. At this stage the composer had only a very small orchestra available, but he does some remarkable things with it. The high horn writing will immediately strike you at the beginning of no.14, while the solo viola and cello in the trio of the Minuet of no.15 create a remarkably rich, almost Brahmsian, sound. The Andante of no.16 is for strings only and I don’t remember ever hearing a texture quite like it. I’m glad the booklet explains the trick, for I’d never have worked out what was going on without a score. The theme is played by the violins and doubled by a cello an octave below, while the accompanying material is shared by the violas, the other cello and the bass continuo, again an octave apart.
Formally, Haydn was tirelessly inventive and the remarkable movement here is the first of no.15. It starts with a delicate Adagio. A typical slow introduction, you will think, but it goes on a bit long for that. One of those early symphonies that starts with a slow movement? No, for it then dashes off into a symphonic allegro. And then the real surprise is that the Adagio returns again afterwards. I don’t think I know any symphony of even a much later date which starts like this, and I wonder if there is any precedent that Haydn could have known?
Though less obviously remarkable, the first movements of no.16 and 17 are notable for their energetic purposefulness, a quality well rendered in these performances. A slightly less happy surprise is the discovery that Haydn could, at this stage, write an Andante – that of no.15 – which is long, featureless and unvaried. Or has the performers’ insistence on elegance at all costs in the slow movements failed to get the most out of this one?
As readers will probably know, Naxos are working through the Haydn symphonies, but are farming the individual discs out to different ensembles and conductors. I’ve so far had the opportunity to review Vol.29, where the first five symphonies were played by the Sinfonia Finlandia conducted by Patrick Gallois. In many ways their approaches are very similar, for both are small modern-instruments ensembles “versed in the performance style of the eighteenth century”, as the booklet specifically states with regard to the Toronto Camerata. So we get zippy, brilliantly articulated allegros, lilting minuets, dancing finales and elegant slow movements. As you will have gathered, if I have reservations it is over this last aspect but, whether or not it is the 18th century way, it certainly seems the modern way.
There is one notable difference between Gallois’s and Mallon’s approaches. Gallois has his harpsichord continuo player billed prominently and she takes on a very active role, even adding cadenzas here and there. Mallon has a harpsichord continuo but with a very discreet role and sometimes silent altogether. For a recording that is to be listened to repeatedly, I think I prefer Mallon’s decision. Incidentally, the uncompleted Hogwood cycle used no harpsichord, even in the earliest works. But shouldn’t the continuo instrument really be a fortepiano?
Another decision made by Mallon is to include every possible repeat, including those of the reprises of the minuets, something that might be considered unnecessary and possibly unwelcome. Though I must say they don’t seem excessively long in these lilting performances. In this he is following Hogwood, whose only historical evidence was “well, it doesn’t actually say you don’t have to repeat them” (I’m quoting from memory an interview I read a good while ago).
Though I should be interested to hear what Gobermann, Maerzendorfer and Dorati made of the slow movements in particular, these are clearly excellent performances in the modern period-aware mould and, unless you actually have one of the few earlier alternatives – 15, 16 and 17 were also recorded by Boettcher on Turnabout – you should not hesitate.
Christopher Howell

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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