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Johann Michael HAYDN (1737 - 1806): "Vocal & Instrumental Works"

Ex Tempore (Florian Heyerick)a; Academia Palatinab; Marcolini Quartetc

rec: September 13-14, 2006, Schwetzingen, Kirche St. Mariab; September 23-24/October 4-5/November 4, 2006, Ghent (B), SRC Steurbauta,c
Et'cetera - KTC 4020 (© 2006) (67'58")

Ave Regina (MH 140)a; Divertimento in A (MH 299 / P 121)c; Missa Tempore Quadragesimae (MH 553)a; Responsoria ad Matutinum in Nativitate Domini (MH 639)a; Symphony in E flat (MH 340 / P 17)b

[ET (instr)] Judith Steenbrink, Sara Decorso, violin; Marian Minnen, cello; Elise Christiaens, violone; David Van Bouwel, organ; [MQ] Jörg Buschhaus, Markus Hoffmann, violin; Stefan Schmidt, viola; Martin Fritz, cello

Being the son of a famous father isn't easy as Johann Sebastian Bach's son and someone like Domenico Scarlatti knew full well. But being the brother of a famous composer isn't easy either. Not that Johann Michael seems to have had any problems with that, as he was apparently a very modest character who liked to stay out of the limelights. It is this which could explain the fact that so few of his compositions have been published during his lifetime. But this modesty had a long-term effect on his reputation and the performance – or rather lack of it – of his oeuvre. But the fact that he was a man of high reputation, and was much admired by Mozart and Schubert suggests this neglect is unjustified. The problem is that people often expect the same from any composer, in particular to have a lasting influence on the course of music history. Johann Michael Haydn had not. But when one brings down one's expectations to a more reasonable level, and understands the primary function of music – especially religious music – at the time, there is a lot to enjoy. It seems nowadays more and more performers are aware of the quality of Johann Michael's output, as in recent years several recordings of his works have been released.

The present disc is a kind of overview of Haydn's music. It contains three sacred works, which belong to the core of his compositional output, as well as two instrumental works, a symphony and a string quartet, which Haydn called divertimento.

The main part of his life Haydn worked in Salzburg. The setting of the Salve Regina is an early work from Salzburg written for double choir in the 'stile antico'. This reflects the influence of Johann Josef Fux, who was working at the Austrian imperial court and famous for his treatise on counterpoint. The two other works are from a much later date. They were written in the 1790s when Johann Michael worked in Salzburg under archbishop Colloredo. His radical liturgical reforms caused a split with Mozart, but Haydn stayed at his post and made the most of it. Colloredo wanted the liturgical music to be rather short and not too complicated and virtuosic, and that is exactly what these two compositions are. They are predominantly homophonic, and avoid solo passages. That doesn't mean this music is easy listening, as there is enough variety to keep the listener's attention, and Haydn doesn't stay away completely from text expression either. The best example is the setting of the 'Crucifixus' from the Missa Tempore Quadragesimae, which contains some very strong dissonants.

The choir sings the vocal works admirably, with the appropriate light touch, but without overlooking the more expressive passages. The instrumentalists are giving good support: basso continuo in the Mass, with two additional violins in the Responsoria ad Matutinum in Nativitate Domini. Not the complete text of these Responsoria is sung as it is printed in the booklet. I can't figure out whether Haydn's settings are not entirely performed or whether the booklet gives a longer text than Haydn has set.

The symphony is a very nice work to listen to, and it is difficult to understand why a piece like this doesn't belong to the standard repertoire of chamber orchestras, not even period instrument ensembles. Hopefully one day that will be the case. Equally good is the divertimento, which is certainly not worse than many other string quartets from the classical period. Both the Academia Palatina and the Marcolini Quartet – consisting of members of Concerto Köln – give lively and colourful performance. It is a shame the symphony has been recorded in a church, whereas the other works have been recorded in the studio. In regard to acoustics I had liked it to be the other way round, as the symphony suffers a little from the too large reverberation.

The booklet contains a good essay on Johann Michael Haydn, in which Florian Heyerick puts the man and his music in its proper historical context. I don't hesitate to recommend this disc to those music lovers who are willing to open their ears for music which didn't – and doesn't - shake the world.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Johann Michael Haydn Gesellschaft
Academia Palatina
Ex Tempore
Marcolini Quartett

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