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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Overture: L’isola disabitata (1779) [7:15]
Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major (1792) [20:19]
Symphony No. 100 in G major, ‘Military’ (1794) [24:04]
Gordan Nicolic (violin); Herre-Jan Stegenga (cello); Toon Durville (oboe); Margreet Bongers (bassoon)
Netherlands Chamber Orchestra/Gordan Nicolic
rec. September 2006, Vakult Hall, Amsterdam

An enterprising Haydn programme from Gordan Nicolic, until recently the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. He directs strong and vital performances, aided by recorded sound that allows the music’s dynamic range to make a powerful impact.

The virtuosity of the playing was on Haydn’s agenda when he composed his London Symphonies for Johann Salomon’s concerts at the Hanover Square Rooms. And in a venue of that size the dramatic impact must have made a terrific impression. As such this performance carries much conviction and is impressive and exciting. The quieter moments are also enjoyable, in that Haydn’s miraculous attention to contrapuntal detail is so well articulated. When the tutti climaxes arrive, as they do in all four movements, the effect is thrilling, but the sound does seem somewhat congested. There is still a lot of interest in the complex textures, but the weight of the sound dominates in a way that it does not, for example, in the Philips recording by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis (Philips Duo 442 614 2). Perhaps this has more to do with the acoustic of the venue, the Concertgebouw itself in Davis’s case, compared with the smaller Vakult Hall in Nicolic’s.

This is an interesting compilation of repertoire, even if at just over fifty minutes the CD contains less music than we might expect nowadays. The Overture to the 1779 opera L’isola disabitata (The uninhabited island) is typically appealing. This work was first performed soon after the disastrous fire at Eszterháza which destroyed the new theatre, and it is a rarity well worth hearing. Haydn is never less than imaginative and the performance serves the music well. Given that this work is less well known, the insert notes prove particularly helpful, and the translation is so fluent that it reads as though it were the original. In fact the whole presentation is a model of its kind, the font size and clear layout contributing to the success.

The Sinfonia Concertante was composed for London, for Haydn’s first visit in 1794 rather than the second visit two years later, when he wrote the Military Symphony. It was a response to the rival Professional Concerts directed by the Frenchman Ignaz Pleyel, which specialized in this type of composition that had been made famous by the celebrated Mannheim orchestra. An amalgam of symphony and concerto, this was the successor of the baroque concerto grosso, featuring a team of soloists while acknowledging the importance of the full ensemble also.

Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante is a three-movement piece, but in other respects it has much in common with the other London Symphonies, such is the richness of its material. Of course the music affords opportunities for the concertante group – violin, cello, oboe and bassoon – to trade their virtuosity, but more importantly, there is a true sense of symphonic direction and some distinguished melodic invention delivered via rhythmic vitality. Nicolic himself plays the violin solo, and his colleagues match his exacting standards. The recording projects the relationship between the orchestra and the solo group to perfection, its subtlety surpassing that in the distinguished Decca recording featuring the Philharmonia Hungarica conducted by Antal Dorati. For in this new compilation from Pentatone the Sinfonia Concertante is the jewel in the crown.

Terry Barfoot


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