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Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809)
Symphony No. 59 in A Major (1769), The Fire Symphony [20:28]
Symphony No. 52 in C minor (1774) [22:40]
Symphony No. 53 in D major (?1778-9), L’Impériale [Version A 26:25, Version B 25:58]
Royal Northern Sinfonia/Rebecca Miller
rec. The Sage, Gateshead, 7-8 September 2014, DDD
SIGNUM SIGCD434 [69:55]

We don’t know why Haydn’s Symphony 59 was nicknamed The Fire Symphony but it’s undeniably pictorial. With Rebecca Miller and the Northern Sinfonia it’s not so much an inferno and more of a cheery camp fire.

In the Presto first movement the lively bass is a hive of energy. Frequent contrasts of loud and soft suggest darting flames while sustained notes on the horns a flare. We witness embering after just 9 seconds, followed by almost immediate rekindling. A narrow waving line first heard on first violins and oboes (tr. 1, 0:39) is a flicker of flame. In the second part of the movement first and second violins tumble in turn from 2:54, then together from 3:54. All these features are crisply and vividly presented. I compared the 1996 recording by the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra/Adam Fischer (Nimbus NI 7072). Their fire is fiercer, their dynamic contrasts more extreme, which does make the contrast of the waving line more pleasant. However I prefer Miller’s lighter, more playful approach, and she observes the second half as well as exposition repeat.

The slow movement, Andante o piu tosto Allegretto, not slow really, is quite operatic in that it’s an uneven contest between a strutting, somewhat wary and tetchy gentleman in its first theme and a smooth, comforting and cajoling lady in its second theme (tr. 2, 0:37). Uneven because after his first presentation the man only gets to repeat his opening phrase while the lady launches into a wistful arioso. In the development the first theme appears in the wake of the second which then returns with the benign blessing of oboes and horns. It’s even unfazed by a final brief return of the first theme with an emphatic flourish of horns. The lady’s blandishments and the prickly man are nicely realized by Miller but the man could have been more of a challenge. That horns’ fanfare is marked ff but doesn’t hit you. Yet Miller’s slower approach than Fischer, 7:02 against 6:17, gives more character to the man and breathing space for the lady’s seamless flow of melody. Fischer makes her initially more plaintive, then gaining in resolve and momentum as her arioso develops.

In the Minuet the man’s strutting is now more jaunty, but the lady continues to offer a charming and civilizing influence. Miller’s lighter articulation than Fischer better marks out the contrast between the two. The Trio is an eerie piece: nervous and impetuous. I prefer the shadowy quality Miller gives it to Fischer’s solemnity. To the festive finale Miller brings breadth in laid-back horns’ fanfares pleasingly offset by friskiness in the oboes and strings. Fischer goes for a brighter, more extrovert and virtuoso display from everyone but I prefer Miller’s ability to make the second half at first both more impetuous and later calm. You’re ready to enjoy its repeat which Fischer doesn’t provide.

Symphony 52 is more archetypal Sturm und Drang, the ‘Storm and Stress’ characteristics of many Haydn middle period symphonies. The prevailing tone is sombre. The opening ‘male theme’ is stern and purposeful. The second, ‘female theme’ (tr. 4, 0:53) is pleading, more assertive, than lingering pleading, reaching its fullest expression at the end of the movement, only to be brusquely rejected by the man. Miller conveys more tension in the atmosphere and overall tone, albeit Fischer is weightier, with fuller dynamic contrasts. Miller more clearly reveals the stark wind palette, the horns’ contribution especially, for example in the development from 4:57 where Fischer (Nimbus NI 5530, recorded in 1994) emphasises the lower strings’ biting interaction with the first violins’ line.

In the slow movement it’s the soft, warm mood that pervades, offset by clamorous warnings, brushed aside by dreamy falling contours and gentle stirrings of the breeze. The development offers more challenges but the dreaminess expands, becomes more resolute and consumes them. Miller, with an exposition timing at 2:35 against Fischer’s 2:22, is arguably slower than the Andante marking, but I think her exquisite phrasing serves the prevailing mood better. The Minuet from Miller steals in quietly and severely in C minor. Its second strain has one phrase of pale sunlight, a hint of the C major Trio, all rosy, with a welcome embellishment by the first oboe in the repeat of its first strain. Fischer, timing at 2:47 to Miller’s 3:15, is closer to the Allegretto marking and is thereby able to make more of the dynamic contrasts, in particular that in the Minuet’s second strain between loud, forcing lower strings (Miller tr. 7, 0:40) and soft, sighing violins (0:41). Again, in the finale, Fischer at 3:27 offers more of a Presto than Miller’s 3:45 which is neater but less restless.

No one knows why Symphony 53 was nicknamed L’Impériale. The opening of the first movement’s main theme, in low register on solo horn and cellos, adds a genial, Falstaffian touch of self-deprecation. Before this, the introduction is certainly imposing, if a little stiffly presented by Miller, yet her main body tutti is indeed Vivace and the violins happily skate around the theme returning on lower strings and bassoon. The second theme (tr, 9, 2:00) comes fluent and assured from the violins and the exposition sports a confident codetta (2:20). In the development the juxtaposition of first theme and accompaniment grows more spiky and ingenious. Fischer’s recording of 1995 (Nimbus NI 5530) is more poised in the introduction but Miller’s greater momentum in the main body of the movement, timing as a whole at 6:51 against Fischer’s 8:02, gives it a more effective sweep.

The slow movement, an Andante, is a straightforward folksong-like theme and variations. From Miller it’s neatly, sweetly articulated and even the A major theme is delightfully treated to extra ornamentation in its repeated strains, anticipating later treatment. Variation 1 (tr.10, 1:10) is a variant in A minor, not as the Signum CD booklet writer states, a second theme, but it does sound different with its melody flowing expansively, unhampered by decoration. For Variation 2 (2:17) we’re back in A major, with delicate added decoration, Variation 3 (3:24) is an elaboration of the minor variant, first with flute and then bassoon and lower strings taking the lead. Variation 4 (4:30) has the flute and bassoon cheerfully returning in the major to a chattering accompaniment by violins. The fifth and final variation (5:34) adds oboes and horns to the mix and Miller has it all skipping along merrily. Fischer’s account, slightly faster at 6:17 against Miller’s 6:42, flows a little more naturally and smilingly and makes the variations in the minor more of a resolute progression.

The Minuet’s emphatic cadence of the first strain is halted in the second to open up a new vista of reflection. The Trio sees the flute airily doubling the first violins an octave higher. Miller adopts a somewhat slower tempo than Fischer, timing at 4:05 against 3:38, which I think suits the music better, especially the drawling quality of the reflection in the Minuet’s second strain. Miller gives us two versions of the finale. I prefer Version A which returns to the manner of the opening movement and includes a captivating thematic transformation at the end of the third strain (tr. 12, 1:09). Version B became the most performed and published. Miller makes it a firecracker of a finale, fresh and festive in its Presto surges of semiquaver runs and crescendo but also with a bright, yet smooth cantabile second theme (tr. 13, 1:02) and a sequential theme in the development (1:48) like a spider furtively climbing a wall. Here Miller outshines Fischer in momentum and well pointed sforzandi.
Michael Greenhalgh



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