“But all the world understands my language.”
—Joseph Haydn to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1790
Haydn’s symphonic language, with over one hundred examples filling the CD catalogues and concert halls worldwide, has probably never had a wider audience, but those who truly understand, interpret then share the master’s genius are fast becoming an endangered species.
As one of their present-day number, Thomas Fey and his talented Heidelberg colleagues have produced a disc that should find a home in any collection. The quartet of symphonies included in this volume provides many moments of great satisfaction even as the performances give testament to the notion that there is still much to learn.
The “Allegro assai” of the opening G Minor Symphony is the perfect showcase for the fifteen movements that follow. Energy abounds, the wind/string balance is fine and the intrepid harpsichord is spot-on with its harmonic underscoring, yet the movement falls just short of heroic excellence. The overall tone is somewhat “rough and ready,” the passagework more thrown away than tossed off, and the forte chords have a near-brutal, steely edge that detracts from the power of the ideas.
The following “Andante,” pleasantly light and beautifully recorded, can’t find the humour in the silences, which come across as dead air rather than a moment for thought. A more horizontal approach with upward “lifts” into the void would be welcome.
Devotees of “authentic performances” will admire the lilt of the “Minuet,” yet the resultant “wows” of the longer melodic notes give the lines a wheezy effect, which is more than compensated for by the “Trio’s” marvellous pianos and oboe interventions. Even though the instruments used are faithfully replicated by several modern-day ensembles, the question remains: How did Haydn imagine the music?
The Finale’s crisp cadences and melodramatic sizzle provide an infectious atmosphere of “Fun and Drang” that close off this work with panache.
The other minor-key symphony opens with a deeply felt “Adagio” that requires just an ounce more relaxation in the lines and a tad more weight on the dissonances to achieve greatness. But then the ensuing “Allegro,” with its heady verve and nimble strings, will bring a smile to any listener’s face.
A little less bass would improve the “Minuet”; similarly, the stellar horns might tone down their off-beats in the “Trio” all the more to savour the oboes and very tasty pizzicati. Fey drives the “Presto assai” with a frantic, breathless abandon, bringing all concerned to a solid conclusion.
Symphony No. 40 is the pride of the disc. Fey’s tempos are ideal: the “Allegro”—particularly in the contrapuntal chaos of the development—has a compelling lilt that lifts the music from the page; near-unanimous note-lengths keep the quasi “music box” theme of the “Andante” moving along with charming naïveté; employing the identical pulse for the “Minuet and Trio” complements the noble horn lines and provides a seamless da capo to the atmosphere of grand repose; not even the return of the “wows” in the “Finale” can mar the heady excitement of Haydn’s fugal genius.
The C Major Symphony’s dramatic “Adagio e maestoso” evokes a marvellous impression of Beethoven lurking in the shadows but comes dangerously close to more of a triple than duple feel in the dotted rhythms. Perhaps another time Fey will further understand Haydn’s harmonic subtext and let the chord of the augmented sixth resolve rather than just move on. Once safely into the “Allegro di molto,” the band of players effuses its customary energy and drive, culminating in a spectacular restatement of the exposition. Much more, please!
The addition of the oboes into the “Andante” reveals the master of subtle colour at work; the following “Minuet”—a through-composed study of celebration and repose—confirms his place as creator extraordinaire. The concluding “Presto” teeters on the precipice of “panicoso” and could benefit from the Bernstein laissez-faire approach so that the music is released rather than forced into consciousness.
With such a spectrum of artistic brilliance and emotional understatement, these symphonies will reward repeated hearings for years to come. JWR