The forgotten brother? The underrated genius?
Some have said so. Indeed there are some fine works, like the
Requiem which are only now gradually being discovered. This double
CD offers a further opportunity to test Michael’s mettle with
nine of the symphonies and three short marches.
I decided to listen to the symphonies in the numbered order although there are other numbering systems as indicated. In fact I started with CD 2 with the unnumbered Sinfonia in F major
- incidentally in the booklet listings they are called ‘Symphony’ but the notes call each ‘Sinfonia’. This Sinfonia is scored for the usual strings but with two oboes and two horns like other later ones. It has been dated, according to the notes by Michael Malkiewicz, to c.1760. It is brief, consisting of four movements, as do several of the other symphonies. An Andante is placed second and the Menuetto is third. The finale is a lively Rondo. In truth the Andante is really a slow minuet. It’s interesting to consider that at the same date Joseph Haydn may well not have written a symphony at all. His so-called Symphony No. 1 seems to date from not earlier than 1761 and is just a three movement work but with a more developed first movement. It would be wonderful to know which brother’s symphony really came first or which first wrote one in four movements. On both counts Michael - who was the younger by five years - can be judged the instigator. Anyway I will pick out several further highlights.
From the end of the 1760s comes the Bb Symphony, No. 14.
This is in three movements and adds two further horns. It is also rather singular in that its second movement seems to have accidently strayed from a missing bassoon concerto being subtitled ‘Concertino per il Fagotto’. This elegant music has more than a whiff of J.C. Bach about it and comes complete with a gentle cadenza all played most stylishly by Klaus Liebetrau. The finale is a Minuet and Trio which Malkiewicz says is “unusual” but which can be found ending some early symphonies of brother Joseph’s symphonies: No. 4 in D.
In truth, for much of its course, the Symphony No. 17
does not seem to be much of a piece. The first two movements were taken from a five act tragedy the composer had written for a Benedictine University some five years earlier. It’s not until the wistful flute writing of the Minuet’s trio that some real character appears and again in a Mozartean Rondo finale of great liveliness and charm.
Moving to CD 1 we come to the Symphony No. 19
which is also in four movements. This has the longest first movement of any of these and has a delightful slow movement featuring some delicious flute writing. The Minuet with its minor key trio emphasises contrasting dynamics with subito p/f markings. The finale is again a Rondo. This symphony could easily be seen by any student as a template for the form as a whole.
Looking at the Symphony No. 24 in A major
we take an opportunity to consider Haydn’s use of sonata-form, or as he would have known it, first movement form. By this date (1781) it is fairly clear and textbook. The movement is in Michael’s favoured 3/4 time opening with a ‘fanfaring’ idea contrasted with a quieter more lyrical second subject, here in the subdominant. The development section moves between the relative minor and various major keys but is quite short. One of the things that Joseph Haydn was to achieve was the enlargement of this development section in his later symphonies. Michael’s recap brings back the ideas in order but with some development and change to the first subject before a lengthy and satisfactory coda ensues. It’s all accomplished in just over five minutes. The middle movements feature wind, oboes, flutes and horns - see later in review for words on wind instruments. These are also prominent in the rather earnest fugal finale which brings the work to a fine ending.
When I first heard the three movement Symphony No. 29 in D minor
, the only one in minor key, I thought immediately of Michael’s brother Joseph’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ symphonies of the previous decade. I was then quite surprised to read that it had been written for a New Year’s greeting for the Archbishop of Salzburg. In fairness the middle movement is a charming Andantino but the outer ones are a nervous Allegro and a surprisingly brash ‘Presto Scherzandi’. This work makes an interesting contrast to those around it.
Michael’s Symphony No. 33 in Bb major
- which opens CD2 - is the longest of these nine and is more the length of those of his brother Joseph. This is only because in 1797, eleven years after its completion, Michael had added a Minuet and Trio quite in stylistic keeping with the rest. This is a celebratory work and includes parts for timpani, horns (quite dominant in the first movement) and woodwind especially bassoon and oboe which have some quite exacting articulation to cope with in the Rondo finale. The development section of the first movement is the most interesting of any in the symphonies.
The Symphony No. 40
is in three movements so has no minuet. The outer ones are quite animated and exciting. For the middle one, the conductor, who for this work was Johannes Goritzki, decided to mute the violins, quite effectively as it turned out. The rather serious portrait of Michael Haydn in the booklet seems to belie the overall cheerful quality of his music.
For a little game with musical friends you could ask “What has Michael Haydn specifically got in common with Mozart”. Well actually there are at least two things; one is that they both worked in Salzburg; another however is that they both completed 41 Symphonies. The Symphony No. 41
is in a sprightly three movements. Furthermore the finales of both are fugal. What is especial curious in Haydn’s case is that he lived on for another seventeen years without tackling the form again. The woodwind writing here and especially again for the bassoon brings me to mention that the German Chamber Orchestra of Neuss play on modern instruments and that includes the wind; perhaps that bothers you a little. I rather wish at times that the balance between the strings and wind was more clear. I do enjoy those raunchy ‘authentic’ horns that period ensembles can produce and the wistful, yet piercing wooden flutes, yet this band shows considerable period awareness both in phrasing and tempi and have made a speciality over recent years of 18th
century music both in the recording studio and in concert. Both conductors are experienced also in this style and period.
The three (of eleven extant) Marches
at the end of CD 2 do little more than “make up the numbers” as it were. Our understanding of Michael Haydn is not especially enhanced by them. Indeed, in their place, CPO might easily have placed one more of the earliest symphonies. Nevertheless the marches have a certain charm and each is differently scored, the third for as big a band as possibly could be assembled: strings with many winds.
With few reservations then, this is a highly recommendable set, beautifully played and recorded. It offers a useful opening into a world of 18th
century symphonic music not crowned by especial genius but by everyday charm and down-to-earth musical intelligence.