This is a cut above the ubiquitous “Best of...’ CDs sold in service stations and downmarket stores; in fact this collection of Haydn’s music has been carefully selected and placed in a comfortable sequence to give a useful, non-chronological survey of the composer’s oeuvre.
The ’Representation of Chaos’ from The Creation makes an ideal start to Simon Rattle’s journey. It is fiercely interpreted with disquieting woodwind harmonies showing that Haydn’s music is moving forward from the comfort of the eighteenth-century and after a carefully judged silence the ‘Earthquake’ movement from Seven Last Words heightens the sense of dark drama. The mood is retained by the Overture to L’isola disabitata; seriousness is essential when being cast away on a lonely island. Then on to the sublime Largo from Symphony 64; I wonder if Rattle would have performed it so slowly in the context of the complete work? Probably not, but restfulness is the ideal state to introduce at this point.
In preparing this assemblage, symphonic form seemed to be in Rattle’s mind because this slow movement is followed by a Minuet – that from Symphony 6 includes an intriguing Trio section featuring double bass and bassoon – and two Finales, that from Symphony 46 with splendid horns in high B (many another conductor has put these difficult parts into the lower octave), and the hilarious close to Symphony 60 in which the orchestra starts, stops to re-tune and goes back to the beginning. I was pleased to hear the first fragment end out of tune – a convincing justification for the re-start.
A pause is taken from symphonic selections and the substantial introduction to ‘Winter’ (The Seasons) is performed – icy indeed (a shortened version is sometimes played). In the Finale of the ‘Farewell’ Symphony instrumentalists leave one by one, indicating at its first performance that the musicians wished to take a belated holiday. With (presumably) an empty stage the “Music for Musical Clocks” is an ideal subsequent feature. Haydn wrote many such pieces – a mechanical pipe organ being employed for their performance; the LSO’s recording, and the huge stereophonic spread, is very effective.
Finally the last movement of Symphony 90 follows, at great speed, and there are demanding parts for horns in high-C, played with great skill. Rattle puts decorations into the repeats – this might upset purists, others may think it authentic. After bar 167 one of Haydn’s witty moments occurs when, following a fanfare, he writes rests for four bars before quietly restating the theme but Rattle comes in sixteen bars late! There is a reason though, because at the pause the audience ruins Haydn’s joke by applauding loudly. The music recovers but on the repeat, the clappers unrepentantly trample on the witticism again. This time Rattle has to be twenty-four bars late with the re-start but suddenly his tempo is an Adagio for thirty-two bars before it lurches back to speed for the rowdy ending. Could it be that having been deprived of Haydn’s humour, Rattle decided to throw in one of his own?
Despite the bizarre events in the ultimate item, this compilation of Haydn’s music could well encourage those with little knowledge of him to explore more deeply, but devoted Haydn lovers are unlikely to be impressed by this scattering of excerpts.