Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Flying high with Haydn

Violinist Aisslinn Nosky.
First, the bad news.

Apparently the music of Franz Joseph Haydn is no longer enough of a draw to fill Symphony Hall; for last weekend's all-Haydn program from the Handel and Haydn Society played to only a two-thirds-full house. It seems Boston is only happy to listen to Haydn when he brings a friend along for the ride - like Mozart.  Or Beethoven.  Or even Handel!

And to be blunt - THAT'S SO WRONG.

Catch a grip, people. Haydn is awesome.  Totally awesome.

For proof you need look no further than this program itself, dubbed "Haydn in Paris" (even though most of the music was written in Austria). It opened with the early Symphony No. 6, known as "Le matin," a delightful evocation of a pastoral morning (and very probably an inspiration for somebody else's "Pastoral" Sixth Symphony).  

Next came the Violin Concerto in G major - a buoyant yet mature crowd-pleaser.  Then the overture to a lost opera, L'isola disabitata - with a storm scene like nobody else's.  Finally, Symphony No. 82 (yes, 82), "The Bear," which closes with a rousing Scottish dance that seems to transform the entire symphony into a hurdy-gurdy (orchestral onomatopoeia was a Haydn specialty, btw).

I know; four hits in a row - that was the good news.  The better news was that Handel and Haydn pulled all this off with vivid color, a crisp attention to detail, and a palpable joie de vivre - which is everything in Haydn, frankly, as he was as witty a composer as Mozart (perhaps even wittier).  Artistic director Harry Christophers has been working for some time on physically loosening up the H&H players, and you could hear (and see) the results of all that coaxing last weekend.  Most of the orchestra played standing up, and there was a graceful lilt swinging through their performance (particularly in "The Bear") that was clean yet thrillingly free.

The orchestra didn't just give it up for Christophers, though.  Concert mistress Aisslinn Nosky came center stage to lead the Violin Concerto in G Major, dressed in her best Sgt. Pepper duds (above left) - and with this musician at the helm (whose playing is as fiery as her hair) the performance proved a  lively wonder. What's more, Nosky seemed to have left behind the showy excesses of her turn in the spotlight last season; this time around, there was a depth and singing eloquence in evidence that beautifully matched the music, as well as her own passion for playing.

Meanwhile Christophers dazzled twice, in both "Le matin" and "The Bear," thus banishing all memory of the slightly uneven playing in his recent Purcell outing.  In "Le matin" the ensemble was deliciously fresh, and turned on a tonal dime from the sparkling opening movement (distinguished by Christopher Krueger's lark-like flute) to the very different demands of the far-more-sober Adagio (marked by what amounted to a delicately rising duet between Nosky and cellist Guy Fishman - Nosky again impressed in a subtle interpretation of the later violin solo).

"The Bear" is perhaps less complex in over-arching theme, but it's still a barn-burner (and I think the only piece in "Haydn in Paris" that was actually written in Paris - see comments).  The second movement revolves around a dazzling development through the classic conceit of theme-and-variation, but it's the finale that sends the audience home smiling.  It is also the source of the symphony's sobriquet - to early audiences, its rhythmic, bag-pipe-like drone recalled the music of the fair, and the dancing bear.  Well, at H&H "The Bear" certainly danced - it all but stomped, in fact, in a climax that went on and on, as Haydn indulged one of his favorite jokes: the symphony that won't quite end.  Not that anyone wanted it to!  Now if Christophers, Nosky and Co. can only convince Boston that Haydn is Da Man, and reason enough all by himself to make a trek to Symphony Hall . . .


  1. It's great to read a review by a writer who really appreciates what an amazingly inventive composer Haydn was. For well over 40 years, he has been my favorite composer, and the term "joie de vivre" has also been my favorite phrase for characterizing his music. It's unfortunate that Haydn was sometimes his own worst enemy---he was so effusive in his praises for Mozart that posterity took him at his word. But when Mozart said that he learned from Haydn how to write string quartets, I think what he really meant was that from Haydn he learned how to fully exploit the possibilites inherent in sonata form, which meant putting a great deal more interest in the so-called "development" sections, and considerably more recomposition in the "recapitulation" sections; and which can be seen in virtually every Haydn symphony, but seldom in a Mozart symphony until the "Prague". May I make a couple of minor corrections to your highly laudable review. The date for the Violin Concerto in G is given as "no later than 1769" because that was the year it first appeared in print. But there's a considerable amount of internal evidence that Haydn wrote the concerto for himself to play, prior to being engaged by Count Morzin, and probably in the mid-1750s and therefore contemporary with the well-known Organ Concerto in C Major that he wrote in 1756. Nosky's account showed what a truly enjoyable work it is, however, with a really gorgeous slow movement. The other point I wish to make is that "The Bear" Symphony (#82) was probably the last of the six "Paris" Symphonies (Nos. 87-82) to be written, and that while they were all written FOR Paris, they were all composed at either Esterhaza, Eisenstadt, or Vienna. Haydn never went anywhere near Paris, not even on his two trips to London in the 1790s. Please keep up your great advocacy of Haydn and his music---reading it helped make my day! (j.fred.thornton@comcast.net)

  2. Thanks for the correction. I have either been innocently misled or have not been paying enough attention regarding the "Paris" symphonies - I always thought for some reason that Haydn either completed them or at least HEARD them there. Investigating the Paris performances a bit further, however, I have found the inspiration, I think, for Ms. Nosky's striking outfit - according to an observer at the premiere, "The musicians wore splendid 'sky-blue' dress coats with elaborate lace ruffles, and swords at their sides." Hence - Sgt. Pepper.