Friday, October 10, 2008

Haydn: Symphony #39, #34

I've mentioned before how I had never really appreciated Haydn before starting this blog. I had always thought of his music as rigid, highly structured and filled with more ornamentation than emotion.
Thomas Fey and the Heidelberger Sinfoniker
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 39, 34, 40, 50
Hanssler Classic, 2001/2003

This batch of four Haydn symphonies puts the lie to those assumptions just like all my other Haydn CDs. Haydn did amazing, facetious, challenging and even shocking things with the symphony. He was every bit the flexible risk taker that Mozart was, despite that era's relatively strict sense what the structure and format of a symphony should be.

And this CD of the Heidelberger Sinfoniker, under the direction of Thomas Fey, is an exceptional performance across the board. There is hardly a mistake or off-key note in the entire CD, a particularly significant achievement as this recording was done with period instruments. For pathological listeners like me, it's a treat simply to enjoy the music rather than be distracted by playing errors.

But let me share one complaint: Why would you record Haydn's 39th, 34th, 40th and 50th symphonies not only out of sequence, but also out of order? Not only does this make categorizing your music more difficult, it makes it nearly impossible to be systematic about acquiring Haydn symphonies.

We saw this phenomenon with my Haydn London Symphony CDs, which contained a total of six of the composer's 12 London symphonies. Don't get me wrong, it was a (mostly) exceptional recording, and listening to and writing about these symphonies was a great joy.

But guess how these symphonies were sequenced on the CD? #94, #100, #101, #96, #103, #104. How is this logical?

Let's say I wanted to have a complete collection of all twelve of Haydn's London Symphonies. If all I could find were randomly (or idiosyncratically) sequenced partial collections, I'd most likely end up having to buy half a dozen separate recordings to approach a complete collection. Worse, this hypothetical six CD mini-collection would probably have six versions of the "Drum Roll" Symphony and no versions of Symphony #102.

If anyone can articulate a legitimate artistic reason for recording symphonies both out of sequence and out of order, please share it with me. I'd love to hear it.

And until I hear a real reason, I'll just assume that this is just a scheme to force consumers to buy extra music. It certainly must help drive sales of boxed sets.

Listener Notes for Haydn's Symphony Nos. #39, #34, #40 and #50:
Indulge me while I rearrange these symphonies into an order that doesn't hurt my eyes so much:

Symphony #34:
1) The long (at least for Haydn) opening movement of the 34th Symphony is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard by the man.

2) Haydn's music is often a study of contrasts, and the 34th Symphony is no exception. After being lulled by the first movement, he makes you jump out of your seat with the Allegro of second movement. Better still is how Haydn flaunts symphonic convention. After all, the first movement is supposed to be aggressive and fast, and second movement is supposed to be slow and quiet. Not the other way around.

3) I particularly love the grace-note-inflected triplets played by the strings in the beginning of the fourth movement of #34.

4) Yet another symphony that's over too soon. After the beautiful nine-minute first movement and the speedy five-minute second movement, the next two movements are barely six minutes long together. All of a sudden this symphony is over before it starts, and we're off to yet another wonderful (and arbitrarily sequenced) symphony!

Symphony #39:
1) I know I recently called Haydn's symphonies the auditory equivalent of an amuse-bouche (although I never meant this statement to sound so condescending). But after being overwhelmed by Beethoven the other day, the contrast between Beethoven's gravitas and Haydn's light-hearted fun seems extreme. Perhaps I should listen to my own advice and avoid listening to classical music composers out of order.

2) Haydn puts a catchy and amusing "hook" at the very beginning of Symphony #39. It's an introduction of the theme of the first movement, but at the same time it's a bit of a headfake. We hear 8 measures of introduction, a fade into a few uncomfortable seconds of silence, and then the symphony starts for real.

3) The tension of the opening few moments of the fourth movement of #39 is real shock. Maybe this symphony isn't quite such an amuse-bouche after all...

I'll be back in a few days with listener notes to the two remaining symphonies on this CD, Symphony #40 and Symphony #50!

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