Haydn still tends to be regarded as a genial sidekick of Mozart, a Dr Watson to Mozart’s Sherlock Holmes.
One achievement of this CD is to celebrate Haydn in his own right as a composer of daring and innovation. The first surprise is the Overture to L’incontro improvviso. It opens with some brief grandeur, largely achieved by the brass, after which the oboes’ melancholic sustained notes ring out like a warning. At 0:52 comes a fast and furious section of ‘Turkish music’, that’s with percussion as in the slow movement of the Military symphony. Thomas Fey’s electrifying handling of this really will blow the cobwebs away. It’s dominated by its initial motif but laced with passages of respite that suggest there may be some humane activity beyond all this energy and gafuffle. Then suddenly we’re transported to an elegant courtly dance - tr.2 though still the Overture - gliding along with some idyllic touches for woodwind. Fey gives it a dreamlike quality, shattered by the return of the furore.
This is a good introduction to the much later symphonies on this CD because you then note how complex and variable they are in mood. A whole world of drama is contained just in the introduction to Symphony 99. Listen to those grand opening chords, simple, gracious melody between them, then dark clouds, plaintive oboe pleading and finally those short appoggiaturas in violins and woodwind (tr. 3, 1:19) brusquely thrown off. The main body of the movement again begins graciously but is soon bullishly assertive: the rising figure on the first clarinet at 2:19 sounds more like a saxophone in this always high voltage account. The second theme (2:59), however, couldn’t be more nonchalant. Then again, in his strong emphasis on the sequence of syncopation closing the exposition, Fey shows how this work anticipates Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. There’s yet more contrast when the development (5:21) begins with a silkily soft version of the first theme. This precedes an expansive, musing treatment of the second theme and a recapitulation of blazing confidence.
I compared the 1989 recording by the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra/Adam Fischer (Brilliant Classics 94601). In terms of quality of interpretation there’s little to choose between Fischer and Fey. They both supply rigour and pace. Fey has the more forward, immediate recording. Fischer emphasizes Haydn’s melodic line more, but Fey is more arresting in rhythmic and harmonic bite. This is partly owing to his use of a hybrid orchestra: modern strings and woodwind but period instrument brass and timpani spanned with calfskin. I like this as I like to hear the timpani part clearly articulated and don’t mind the brass being prominent. Fischer offers a more familiar homogeneous sound. Fey turns on the charm more for the second theme, has a more rapt opening to the development and jubilant recapitulation. Fischer brings more urgency to the development.
The slow movement is fascinating and enigmatic. Its free flowing second theme (tr. 4, 1:31) is heard five times in comparison with only three appearances of its more contained opening theme, though the woodwind soon sing themselves out of this containment. Fey treats the first theme with openness, warmth, tenderness and light, delicate attention to its elaborate ornamentation. His tempo, more Adagietto than Adagio brings a cheerier aspect to the whole. At a timing of 8:29 against Fey’s 7:37, Fischer is closer to Adagio and brings a more reserved, reverential, even repressed approach. Even so, the ornamentation is a more intrinsic part of the expression. Fey’s second theme is smoother, creamier than his first yet a happy response to and companion for it. He creates a tellingly contrasted shadowy quality for the opening of the central section. This soon becomes impassioned before the first theme returns with an accompaniment of running semiquavers. It is treated by Fey in especially glowing fashion when finally given to the cellos. Fischer prefers decorum. Fey’s close is more brightly affirmative.
Fey relishes the fun of the Minuet. I thought at first it was over the top, but the dynamic contrasts are all Haydn’s. The courtliness in the first violins is continually ousted by the country bumpkin bass. That said, it’s fulfilled by the surprise of the later splendour of splashes of tutti sound. Fey takes the Trio a touch slower so it can purr along, all coyness and charm, oboes suavely doubling first violins. Fischer plays the Minuet with a straighter face - neater and duller. As usual for him Fischer uses solo instruments in the Trio, to sweet but less stylish effect than Fey. The latter’s finale begins light and smiling. There are soon exuberant tuttis, helter-skelter first violin semiquaver runs and a rondo theme turning fugal. It’s all done with a touch more panache than the equally nimble Fischer.
Symphony 100 is better known because of its nickname, the Military, owing to the ‘Turkish music’. The gargantuan percussion - cymbals, triangle, bass drum as well as timpani - by late 18th century standards, suddenly appear in its slow movement and return in its finale. Fey ensures they make their mark but the joy of his slow movement is the blithe, comely innocence he conveys in the easy Allegretto flow of the woodwind before the percussion arrive. Afterwards the woodwind remain idyllic so the movement seems to display two parallel universes. It is the military sections that are converted from minor to major key expression both in the main body of the movement and in the coda beginning with trumpet solo as bugle call. Fey shows the military influence is more pervasive still. His first movement introduction begins sunny and sedate but then some accents suggest trouble on the horizon, confirmed by two ominous crescendos and a loud close. He takes the Allegro main body of the movement at a fair lick which gives it a hyperventilated quality. The first theme skips along inconsequentially in the woodwind initially but the opening tutti has the brashness of a show of force as well as vigour. Haydn’s catchy second theme (tr. 7, 3:02) begins delightfully merry but similarly grows hardier. At the beginning of the development there’s then the strongest contrast of absolute silence, 7 beats of it contrived by Haydn. In the glorious coda Fey gives us horn and trumpet fanfares at full tilt. The second theme richly blazes forth on violas, cellos, double basses and bassoons assisted by horns.
Fey’s Minuet is hearty and sturdy, with a good swing. He admirably points Haydn’s constant interplay of varied melodies and motifs between strings and woodwind and the cheeky mimicking by the oboes. Fey’s Trio has a quieter skipping and I’d have liked it even more nonchalant. Is this perhaps avoided to prepare us for the suddenly grim, only tutti passage in its second strain, adding drums and brass - the military appearing again?
Fey’s finale begins fast and with a deft lightness as the other strings provide a syncopated counterpoise to the first violins’ melody but there’s soon considerable bite in the tuttis. This finale both teases with contrasts of dynamic and becomes introspective in contrasts of mood. This is Haydn’s way of adding to the tension which is only resolved by the triumphant return of the military percussion. Through the symphony overall, as Fey shows, the military aspect bring both glory and foreboding. This ambivalence is more clearly revealed in this interpretation than I have heard before.
Masterwork Index: Haydn London symphonies