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Franz Joseph HAYDN: Symphonies

[I] "Haydn ŕ Paris"
Les Agrémens
Dir: Guy Van Waas

rec: March 2008, Église du domaine de Farničres
Ricercar - RIC 277 (© 2008) (68'54")

[II] "London Symphonies 93, 95 & 96"
Cappella Coloniensis
Dir: Bruno Weil

rec: Oct 24 & 26, 2008 (live), Essen, Philharmonie (Alfred Krupp Saal)
Ars Produktion - 38 061 (CD + Bonus-CD) (© 2009) (63'12"; 38'26")

[I] Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): Symphony in f sharp minor 'Abschied' (H I,45); Symphony in B flat 'La Reine' (H I,85); Joseph Martin KRAUS (1756-1792): Symphony in D (VB 143)
[II] Franz Joseph HAYDN: Symphony in D (H I,93); Symphony in c minor (H I,95); Symphony in D (H I,96)

In the year 2009 Franz Joseph Haydn was one of the composers who was given special attention to as he died 200 years ago. Not that he needs any special attention: his works are very popular among orchestras, and in particular his Paris and London symphonies are played and recorded frequently. There are parts of his oeuvre which are far less well-known, like his piano trios, the string duos and the many works he wrote for the baryton, the favourite instrument of his employer, Nikolaus Esterházy.

But even in his symphonic oeuvre there are still a number of works which are hardly ever played. And we are still waiting for a complete recording of his symphonies on period instruments. The two discs to be reviewed here don't bring anything new in regard to repertoire. The London symphonies which Bruno Weil has recorded with the Cappella Coloniensis belong to Haydn's most frequently performed, and the symphonies Guy Van Waas has chosen are quite familiar as well. But his recording looks at Haydn from an angle which makes sense.

Haydn was very popular in Paris, and between 1773 and 1790 his name appeared more than one hunderd times at the programmes of the Concert Spirituel, the main institution in the field of public concerts in Paris in the 18th century. There is evidence that his Symphony in f sharp minor (H I,45) was performed during one of the concerts of the Concert Spirituel in 1784. A French newspaper gave a description of the last movement in which the musicians one after the other blow out their candles and leave the platform. It also explained the reasoning behind it, but it was slightly different from what is generally considered the real reason.

The Symphony in B flat 'La Reine' (H I,85) was also performed in Paris. It is one of the six so-called 'Paris symphonies', written for the Concerts de la Loge olympique in 1785. Its musical director was the famous violinist Joseph Boulogne, also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Queen Marie-Antoinette regularly attended the performances of these concerts, and she expressed her specific liking for Haydn's Symphony No 85, which was hence nicknamed 'La Reine'. In between these symphonies another composer is performed: Joseph Martin Kraus. He was highly regarded by Haydn, who considered him a genius. The Symphony in D (VB 143) was published in Paris under Haydn's name, but there is no evidence it was ever performed there. From this perspective its inclusion is a bit odd.

In regard to the performance it should be noted that the orchestra is performing all three symphonies without a harpsichord. The use of a keyboard instrument - mostly the harpsichord - in Haydn's symphonies is a matter of debate. In his programme notes to the recording of Haydn's symphonies Nos 6 to 8 by the Freiburger Barockorchester (Harmonia mundi) Armin Raab, director of the Joseph Haydn Institut in Cologne, states that Haydn "always performed instrumental works without this continuo instrument". But he is talking about Haydn's own performances at the court of the Esterházy's. The performances in Paris were not under his direction, and therefore it is quite possible that here a harpsichord - or maybe even a fortepiano - was used. The same is true for Kraus' symphony, and as Haydn's performances were the exception to the rule that a keyboard instrument had a regular place in 18th-century orchestras it is reasonable to assume his symphonies were performed with keyboard.

This could be considered a minor aspect of these performances. But this disc aims at approaching Haydn's music from the angle of his connection to Paris. And as the repertoire chosen is anything but uncommon one would expect the performance trying to reflect the performance practice in Paris at the time. But the way the two symphonies by Haydn are played here is not different from what we usually hear. And that makes the concept considerably less interesting.

Having said that the main problem is that the interpretations of Les Agréments are not really good. There is nothing wrong with the playing in the technical department; we have an excellent orchestra here, which I have heard performing some French late-18th-century music very well. But here, where there is much competition, it fails to present itself as a serious contender in the field of Haydn interpretation.
The Paris symphonies are among the most popular of 18th-century orchestral music, and a number of recordings on period instruments are available. I listened to the recording by the Orchestra of the 18th Century under the direction of Frans Brüggen, and their performance is a lot better. Although the tempi are not substantially different, the playing is much more sparkling and energetic, and in comparison Les Agréments look sluggish and slow. There are artistic reasons for this, as Brüggen's articulation is much sharper and his treatment of dynamics more differentiated and subtle. But it is also the recording venue which undermines Les Agrémens' performances. A church - and especially an empty church - is not the ideal surroundings for orchestral music.

In the case of Haydn's Symphony No 45 I turned to the recording by the Hanover Band, directed by Roy Goodman (Hyperion). The difference in tempo in the opening movement is striking: Goodman needs 6'11", Van Waas 8'17"! The character indication 'allegro assai' suggests Goodman is closer to the truth here, although I think the dissonant passages are not as incisive as they should be. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but Van Waas is definitely too slow. The menuet is much more sparkling in Goodman's recording than in Van Waas' and the contrasts between the two last movements are stronger. Also the last movement where the orchestra is gradually reduced in size is more subtle and makes a stronger impression than in the performance of Les Agrémens.

Lastly, the Symphony in D by Kraus: this is available in a recording by Concerto Köln (Capriccio). Again, the playing of this ensemble shows greater differentiation in articulation and dynamics, and the whole performance is more energetic and rhythmically more flexible.

Like I wrote the London symphonies are often played and recorded. And a new recording has to be very different in interpretation in order to be a worthwhile addition to the catalogue. I can't see any reason why someone would want to purchase the disc with three London symphonies by the Cappella Coloniensis, if there are much better recordings to choose from.
This production contains a second disc in which Bruno Weil during a public concert talks about compositional details in these symphonies which are then illustrated by the orchestra. This is very instructive and certainly helps the audience to understand what makes these symphonies so special. But it is all in German, so it is of no use if you don't understand German. Most of what he is saying is also included in the liner notes, but that is not the same.

The performances then don't live up to the expectations. The Cappella Coloniensis is a very good orchestra, and over the years Bruno Weil has delivered excellent recordings of the classical repertoire, with various ensembles. But this time I found his interpretations rather boring and bland, not very pronounced. I compared these recordings with those by Sigiswald Kuijken, directing La Petite Bande (deutsche harmonia mundi). These are better in almost every respect.

The Symphony No 96 begins with an adagio which is not very expressive: Kuijken's timing and dynamic shading create the tension Weil's performing is lacking. The allegro isn't bad, but not very good either as it lacks brilliance and energy. The andante is a bit boring, whereas the trio in the menuet is one of the better parts of this disc. But then the last movement fails to really explore the contrast between the two episodes: the d-minor part is too flat.
Then follows the Symphony No 95: the first movement lacks dynamic contrasts and the general pauses are not clearly accentuated. The menuet lacks sharp edges, and although the cello solo in the trio is played well, Kuijken's cellist is more playful. The last movement contains a stormy c minor passage which is too innocent here.
Lastly the Symphony No 93. The first two movements are alright but there is nothing special to refer to. In the minuet wind and strings are juxtaposed, but Weil doesn't make enough of that. The last movement is an allegro ma non troppo: Kuijken has found the right tempo here, whereas Weil is too fast. The articulation is bit sloppy, the general pauses too short and Haydn's caprioles don't come out very well.

The interpretation being disappointing I have to add that the acoustical circumstances are not very forthcoming. I don't know exactly what is wrong with it, but the concert hall where this recording was made seems to have very little resonance. The sound is flat and lacks depth and brilliance. The indirect recording doesn't help either.
But what is decisive is the interpretation itself, which is uninspired and lacklustre. This disc is just no competition to what is already on the market.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Cappella Coloniensis
Les Agrémens

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