Franz Joseph Haydn is often called the "Father of the Symphony." He didn't invent the form, but he certainly brought it to a higher level.
In the process of perfecting the symphony, Haydn never lost his sense of humor. Haydn's sense of humor is one reason Sir Simon Rattle has developed an affinity for the composer. "For me," he explains, "Haydn is the greatest underrated composer of them all, and for any musician who loves to play, he's almost the most satisfying because he gives you absolutely everything."
On their latest recording, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic offer a brilliant survey of five symphonies written by Haydn just before the composer's conquest of London in the 1790s. There's also a delightful Sinfonia Concertante for four soloists.
This two-CD set was recorded during live performances in Berlin this past February. The first CD leads off with the Symphony No. 88 in G. This work was one of Haydn's most popular symphonies for years. It was one of the few outside of Haydn's series of London symphonies which received regular performances. The Berlin Philharmonic has a field day bringing out the many surprises this symphony has to offer.
The first movement opens with a grand adagio with limited orchestral scoring. Haydn keeps the trumpets and drums in reserve for the slow movement, which was very unusual in the late 18th century. Haydn was hailed for his originality at the time. This slow movement also contains a profoundly beautiful melody. When Brahms heard it years later, he said, "I want my Ninth Symphony to sound like this."
Another unexpected pleasure drifts into our ears during the trio of the third movement. Here, Haydn asks the winds and strings to imitate the drone of a bagpipe. The Berlin Philharmonic really hams it up during this little jaunt to the Scottish Highlands.
One of Haydn's best-known works on this recording is his Symphony No. 92 in G, known as the "Oxford" Symphony. It earned its nickname when Haydn conducted it after receiving a Doctorate of Music from Oxford in 1791. This symphony is considered to be one of the composer's finest.
One thing that sets this symphony apart from others by Haydn is the way the slow introduction of the first movement rolls directly into the allegro assai. Sir Simon Rattle's approach allows the opening Largo to quietly fade. Then, with one quick flick of the wrist, Rattle alters the mood of the first movement from quiet and reflective, to joyful and effervescent.
Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante in B Flat for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon closes out this two-CD set. What a wonderful way for the Berlin Philharmonic to showcase its world-class musicians!
Haydn worked with a small, top-notch ensemble at Esterhazy. Sir Simon Rattle pares down the Berlin Philharmonic on this recording to match the forces Haydn had at his disposal.
While soloists have the spotlight in each of the symphonies on this new release, they take center stage in this Sinfonia Concertante. Rattle says, "It has the intimacy and joy of one of those wonderful chamber music evenings that musicians have when they drink a bit and they play whatever they like." You will definitely like the way the Berlin Philharmonic plays this piece. Each soloist takes its turn, gliding in and out of the full ensemble with careful ease, improvising along the way.
Sir Simon Rattle has always had a special affinity with Haydn. He's programmed the composer's symphonies on a regular basis since his days with the City of Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1980s.
With the Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle uses brisk tempos and no vibrato in the strings to demonstrate something of the sound world of Haydn's day. On this new release, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic give us a new appreciation of a composer who is often taken for granted.