Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Franz Josef Haydn: Symphonies 94. 99 and 101 & Concerto For King Ferdinand, No. 5

This double-disc budget release on the German Pilz label from 1990 features fine performances of three of the great Haydn's later symphonies by the Philharmonia Slavonica, the Süddeutsch Philharmonie and the Camerata Romana--none known in the upper echelons of orchestras or smaller ensembles, but still excellent nonetheless.

Haydn was one of the modern developers of the symphony, though the form was still relatively brief at roughly 25 minutes for each four-movement work, even in the composer's later years--nothing like the gargantuan works by Mahler, Bruckner and others who followed a century and more later.  These were also not monumental sonic blockbusters as with those later composers and were, instead, lighter, more melodic and, yet, still quite rich and complex.

Each of the three symphonies featured in this set was composed during Haydn's first stay in London.  The Symphony #94 was written in 1791 and is usually denoted as the "Surprise Symphony" because of a famed little joke the composer inserted in its second movement.  There is a quiet passage with piano when suddenly a quick loud fortissimo burst erupts from the orchestra before the movement resumes its ambient quietude.  A biographer asked the aged composer whether this was done to awaken a sleeping audience member, to which Haydn replied, "No, but I was interested in surprising the public with something new."

The Symphony #99 was written in late 1793 and premiered early the next year on Haydn's second visit to England and is notable for being the first of the composer's symphonic works to feature clarinets.  Coming at around the same time and premiered within a couple of months as the other, the Symphony #101 is usually known as the "Clock Symphony" because of a notable "ticking" rhythm in its second movement.  As with most of the dozen London (or Salomon, after Johann Peter Salomon, a musician, composer, and impresario who brought Haydn to Britain) symphonies, it was very warmly received and, like the others, is frequently performed.

The fifth concerto for King Ferdinand of Naples (later of "The Two Sicilies" in Italy originally featured a pair of that monarch's favorite instrument, an Italian one similar to a hurdy-gurdy.  Modern performances forego that unusual sound and soloists usually feature flutes and oboes.  The second and third movements of the concerto, which was completed in 1786, were recycled the following year in Haydn's Symphony #89.

Haydn is often overshadowed by Mozart, who was a generation younger, but his later works in particular are amazing and the composer became a favorite of this listener from the time his music was first heard a quarter century ago, in 1990.  These symphonies are timeless classics that never get old or timeworn.

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