MUSIC: Haydn for beginners (and everyone else too)

Once again I’ve cobbled together an iMix on iTunes, so readers who feel like it can get a sense of what I’m on about when I write about music. This one is all Haydn, in honour of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death, which Jaime Weinman marks here, with yours truly chiming in here.

Clicking this link should take iTunes-equipped readers to my mix. If not, you can go to the iMix section in iTunes and put my name in the search window. It’s short, only seven tunes, really just a sampler. At less than $7, at least the price is right.

Here’s the rundown:

1. Symphony No. 6 in D Major, “Le Matin,” I. Adagio-Allegro, Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band. When a guy writes 104 symphonies, your instinct (well, mine) is to join him near the end, when theoretically he’s figured out whatever it was he was trying to do. I’ve mostly listened to Haydn’s symphonies after 60 or so. So it was only last year that I checked out his Symphonies 6-8, written when he was only 29 and new at court. And they’re a blast, spritely and full of variety. This one is nicknamed “Morning” because the first several bars are an evocation of sunrise. They also leave open, for an instant, the question of what key the whole thing is in, so that when it slides into D with solo lines for flute and oboe it’s the more satisfying.

2. Trio in A Major (Hob. XV:18), IV. Allegro, The Gryphon Trio. Haydn’s trios, for violin, piano and a cellist who basically just tracks the piano’s left hand for emphasis, are some of his finest miniatures. I like this one for the way he shuffles the accents onto various beats and off-beats in the opening bars so the whole thing kind of swings. Haydn, no fool, repeats the effect several times because there’s no danger of wearing out its welcome.

3. Keyboard Concertino in C Major (Hob. XIV:12), II. Adagio, Sabine Vatin and Ensemble d’Arco. Haydn’s concertinos — little chamber concertos with a solo keyboard backed by a few strings — appear on nobody’s list of his finest works, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the cheap little Naxos CD that contains this piece. There’s a clear division of labour, with the piano (could have been a harpsichord or a fortepiano, but here it’s a modern piano) as the solo voice and the string trio acting as its “orchestra.” This slow movement is pure, mournful, long-limbed melody. If the cliché of Haydn is that he never got too deep into drama, I’d propose this piece, which sounds as though Schubert could have written it, as a rebuttal.

4. Trio in G Major (Hob. XV:25), IV. Presto (Rondo al’Ongarese), The Gryphon Trio. The Gryphons are young Canadians, incidentally, and they tackle these trios with panache. This finale is quick, funny, and it’s built on a great old form, the Rondo, in which a short melody is played again and again, interspersed each time with a more ornate and surprising passage. Every time the band comes around to the home melody, you get a real rush of familiarity and relief that speeds the whole piece forward.

5. The Creation (Die Schöpfung), 1a. Einleitung. Die Vorstellung des Chaos, English Baroque Soloists and John Eliot Gardner. The opening of an oratorio (big concert piece for symphony, choir and vocal soloists) about the biblical Creation. Now let me explain all that German, because it’s a key to this work’s fascination. In the beginning, as you’ll recall, the earth was without form, and void. Haydn has to start there, but he starts not with Chaos, but with what is self-consciously labelled a depiction (Vorstellung) of Chaos. It’s objective: Haydn doesn’t want his music to be without form, he wants to use form to let you know what the formless void must have felt like. So he opens with that long C: unharmonized so you can’t know the key, without rhythm so you can’t know the tempo. It’s an uncannily modern and elegant solution, in the way computer programmers understand “elegant”: there is no simpler way to achieve the same result. Things quickly grow less abstract, but the feeling of mystery and portent remains.

6. Symphony No. 104 in D Major, “London,” II. Andante, Nicholaus Harnoncourt and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

7. Symphony No. 104 in D Major, “London,” IV. Spirituoso, Nicholaus Harnoncourt and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

We close with two movements from Haydn’s last symphony, composed 14 years before he died — an interesting detail because it suggests that he stopped writing symphonies, not out of failing health, but because he felt he’d said what he wanted to say with the form. Especially in the hands of a great modern orchestra like Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, this really does sound like it’s come a long way since that sixth symphony at the top of the playlist. Gestures are bolder, the scale is larger. The swaggering Finale seems to set the table for Beethoven. The slow movement advances its argument haltingly, with lots of pauses, like a game of peek-a-boo. A hint of Haydn’s sly side, but also of his melodic gift.

That’s everything. I know most readers pass these music compilations over, but any who buy this mix (or who knew much of this music already) are more than welcome to share impressions and questions in the comment space below.

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