Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 6 in D “Le matin” [18:40]; Symphony No. 7 in C “Le midi” [21:51]; Symphony No. 8 in G “Le soir” [17:51]
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
rec. London, December 1980
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802006 [59:21]

Although only one has that nickname, all of Haydn’s symphonies offer plentiful surprises. Their first audiences were delighted and amazed by them and they have the capacity to achieve that still, none more so than the present fascinating trio. Although they have nicknames they are not descriptive works in the detailed manner of, say, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The opening movement of “Le matin” depicts sunrise in a way virtually identical to that used much later in “The Creation”. The final movement of “Le soir” portrays a storm in a manner prefiguring the much more effective storm in “The Seasons”; otherwise there is little that justifies or explains the names given to them.

They were the first Symphonies that Haydn wrote for Prince Esterházy when he had been appointed as Vice Kapellmeister in 1761. This involved being in charge of the Prince’s private orchestra and holding regular concerts with them. In creating these three symphonies he achieved three important aims – he met (up to a point) the Prince’s liking for programmatic music and demonstrated his remarkable musical invention. He also gave opportunities for the players of his new orchestra to show off their abilities to him and, more importantly, to the Prince. It is this last feature that gives the works their most obvious individuality. In some movements one or two instruments are prominent throughout – the double-bass in the Trio to the Minuet in No. 7, for example. Other movements make a more subtle use of solo instruments. The flute, for instance starts the Allegro of the first movement of No. 6 but only rarely regains such prominence. The oboes and bassoon have important passages and the most surprising feature is the two bar lead into the recapitulation for solo horn alone – an extraordinary episode. In the slow movement there are long solo sections for violin and cello, the minuet brings a further and more extensive flute solo and the trio a bassoon solo, but the finale gives solos to almost every player. I could go through the other symphonies in the same way but I hope that this gives some idea of the variety of texture and focus that there is in such relatively short works. In addition – and possibly of greater importance – Haydn’s powers of musical invention are already on top form here, and there is never a dull moment for the listener.

These performances date from the period when Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields seemed to be at their busiest in the recording studio. Some of their issues may now seem more efficient than inspired but that is not the case here. Their usual extreme care over balance, phrasing and tone colour pays real dividends in these works. The clear and uncluttered recording allows all of Haydn’s invention to be displayed to full effect. A harpsichord is occasionally audible, but it adds little and when the same “improvised” decoration is heard three times in a row diminishing returns set in quickly. There is certainly a strong case for wanting to hear these works on period instruments when instrumental colour is such an important feature, but even if you have such a recording there should also be room in your collection for such a lively and well considered version as this.

John Sheppard

Lively and well considered