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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 57 in D major (1774) [26:15]
Symphony No. 67 in F major (1775 or 1776) [24:18]
Symphony No. 68 in B-flat major (ca. 1774) [27:56]
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra/Nicholas McGegan
rec. live, First Congregational Church, Berkeley, California, 2014

The San Francisco-area based Philharmonia Baroque is one of America’s leading period instrument ensembles and has delivered a number of superb recordings under its director Nicholas McGegan. This new disc of Haydn symphonies is no exception. These forces previously made a recording of more familiar Haydn symphonies, comprising Nos. 88, 101 and 104, which I have not heard. Here they present earlier works not that often encountered on disc, to say nothing of their neglect in the concert hall. That is a pity, as these symphonies are delightful throughout and represent middle-period Haydn at its most attractive. All three offer something unusual either in their form or how they employ the orchestra.

No. 57 begins with a usual slow introduction, but with the notes separated, before launching into its joyous exposition—one with a hummable Haydnesque tune. The second movement, marked Adagio, alternates pizzicato strings with a warm-hearted theme and variations on the main theme. Later the winds enter with detached notes. The third movement minuet is a country dance (lšndler) with a minor-key trio. The finale is quite fast and furious and suggests the clucking of hens and crowing of roosters, something Haydn would use again in his Symphony No. 83.

No. 67 begins with a rollicking 6/8 movement and is much lighter than one would expect of a symphonic opening. It’s more in the nature of a Haydn finale. Here the horns come into their own and bring the movement to a close with their “hunting” theme. Then there couldn’t be a greater contrast in the deeply felt slow movement. With its pauses it anticipates the late, London symphonies. Most unusual here is the use of col legno d’arco strings, played with the wood on the back of the bow. This is something later composers, such as Rossini, would employ to great effect. Then comes a very short minuet, slightly over two minutes on this recording, with a trio astonishingly played by two solo violins muted and one of them retuned down a step to create a drone sound. The finale begins exuberantly with a brisk march-like theme, but has an Adagio e cantabile middle section scored for string trio (two violins and cello) that seems to have wandered in from some chamber work.

No. 68 is special in having its slow movement after the minuet and also quite possibly the composer’s longest single movement — lasting over 12 minutes in this performance. The symphony begins rhythmically with its primary theme of two contrasting phrases. There are nice solo turns by the winds, especially the bassoons. The second movement minuet has an aristocratic air, with prominent horns accompanying the strings. The trio with its offbeat accents contrasts well with the minuet proper. The long slow movement begins with the clock-like ticking of the second violins that foreshadows Haydn’s late symphonies, especially No. 101 Clock. This movement sustains enough interest with good writing for the winds, though it can seem a bit repetitious. The main theme “ends,” but then starts up again with its ticking — undoubtedly one of Haydn’s many jokes. The symphony concludes with a boisterous rondo, where the period bassoons growl wonderfully as well as having a virtuosic role. Again there is a long pause, at 4:33, when the solo instruments, beginning with the violin, each get a turn before the closing chords. This is Haydn at his most witty.

Nicholas McGegan and his Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra capture the spirit of Haydn with perfection. His pacing throughout seems ideal and the orchestra renders all the detail of the symphonies without any artificial spotlighting. It should be noted that they also play well in tune with a judicious balance between strings and winds. The sound is rather close-up, but in no way claustrophobic. The feeling of a live performance is everywhere present, containing both brilliance and warmth.

The orchestra’s own label has contributed a first-class production with excellent notes on the works and the performers, who are listed near the back of the booklet. I can find nothing but praise for this enterprise and hope they will record more Haydn, as they appear to have a special rapport with the composer.

Leslie Wright