Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Illuminating Haydn

The Haydn 2032 project picks up steam in this third release from Alpha Classics, "Solo e Pensoso". It takes its title from sonnet XXXV from Petrarch’s Il Canzioniere that was set by Haydn in 1798:
Alone and deep in thought, through the loneliest fields
I tread with slow and sluggish steps,
and keep my eyes watchful, intent on flight
wherever a human footprint appears in the sand.
"Alone and deep in thought" is not how we think of the lively and above all social music making of the Baroque period, so this is an important milestone on the way to the solitary-genius composer whose epitome was Mozart, and in a heroic and Romantic form, Beethoven. But we're not used to thinking of Haydn in these terms at all. Putting Haydn's dramatic but still pensive setting at the centre of this new project, and presenting it in such as stylish way, with the musicians of his superb band Il Giardino Armonico and soprano Francesca Aspromonte, Giovanni Antonini once again makes us look at Haydn in a new way.

This time around the program is all-Haydn, though a Mozart aria from 1789, Vado, ma dove?
KV 583, featured in the 2015 concert programs for this project but didn't make it onto the disc. The three symphonies, #4 completed in 1760, #42 of 1771, and #64 from 1773, are given context by Haydn's Petrarch setting and another work from the stage, the overture to L’Isola Disabitata from 1779. Thus we have music from Haydn's early, middle and late periods, but Antonini has something much more sophisticated in mind than a mere chronological approach. Rather, he is following threads from the vast tapestry of Haydn's symphonic output to illustrate his theme.

Symphony #42, which begins the program, has an arresting combination of operatic incident and a more abstracted and wistful counterpoint. In tone if not always in musical style this seems quite close to Mozart. This is even more true of the great Symphony #64, with the mysterious "missing cadences" of its eccentric Largo and possibly contemporary nickname Tempora mutantur (the beginning of a Latin tag that goes "Times change, and we change with them: how so? Mankind gets worse with time.") One theory is that this music was part of a lost project of Haydn's to provide incidental music for Shakespeare's Hamlet. We're a long way from the Papa Haydn stereotype here! Symphony #4, which ends the program, is a surprisingly cultivated and refined work for its time, with its ghostly middle Andante not giving up a sense of muted melancholy in the more dramatic, but still, in the end, contemplative and thoughtful finale.

The marketing of Haydn 2032 is world-class. Go to the Solo e Ponsoso portion of the project website for the full deal, including amazing photos by Bruno Barbey and superb analysis by musicologist Christian Moritz-Bauer. There's even a Haydn 2032 shop planned for the future. But none of this matters if the music isn't special, and to my mind it certainly is. In fact, these are ground-breaking performances,  In #64 there's an immediacy and presence that clearly outshines Christopher Hogwood's version with the Academy of Ancient Music. Even the version of the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra under Adam Fischer, my reference standard for Haydn, seems less nimble and expressive. I'm so pleased with what I've heard so far from Haydn 2032, and look forward to the long journey to Haydn's Tricentennial.

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