Monday 6 February 2012

Is Haydn still underrated?

There’s no doubt that Beethoven is considered a musical genius and Mozart is viewed as one of the all time great composers. So what about Haydn? It’s true that he is talked about as being one of the great Viennese masters but do music lovers actually listen to much of his music. I somehow think that many people go straight to Beethoven or Mozart whilst merely praising Haydn.

It’s true that most of his music has been recorded, even the 126 baryton trios, but who can say that they really know Haydn’s music that well, apart from the very well known works such as the twelve ‘London’ symphonies, perhaps also the ‘Paris’ symphonies or The Creation.

Is it that his very prolificacy tended to work against him? After all, it’s easier to find your way around Beethoven’s nine symphonies and even Mozart’s forty numbered symphonies, though only the last five or six are that popular. In the case of Haydn we have to cope with 106, giving people a problem as to where to start. I would suggest that it’s even more difficult with the string quartets given that Haydn wrote sixty eight against Beethoven’s sixteen and Mozart’s twenty three.

If this is true then this is a shame because at his best Haydn offers, to my mind, more variety than even Beethoven. Haydn is considered the father of the symphony, though that accolade might go to Sammartini.

However, Haydn must certainly take the credit for developing the symphony to what it is today. The 106 symphonies offer so much depth, passion and feeling as well as sheer fun and invention. Amongst the recordings of the symphonies those which stand out are complete cycles by Dorati on Decca and Fischer on both Nimbus and Brilliant Classics

                                                                23 CDs + CD Rom

But there are also the string quartets which I think show an equal development of the form and show as much depth, passion and fun as the symphonies. If you feel like taking the plunge, there are a number of complete cycles of the quartets to consider. My own choice has been a fine Brilliant Classics issue from the Buchberger Quartet

The Buchbergers have been playing this music since the late 1970’s and have Haydn very much in their blood. This might be a bargain set (I bought it for around £35 through Amazon but the playing, recording and notes (on a CD Rom) are top notch.

These are modern instrument performances but the Buchbergers have looked carefully at the question of performance style such as articulation and phrasing, dynamics and use of vibrato, something which would have been used sparingly in Haydn’s time. Whilst using the latest editions of the quartets, they have also studied the autograph manuscripts as well as first editions.

So what has the result of this scholarship been? Well, the most obvious result is that these are not silky smooth, more comfortable performances. For that you may well look to the Aeolian Quartet on Decca or the Angeles Quartet on Philips What you get here is a leaner, edgier style of playing that always keeps your attention and points up the spirited and lively nature of certain quartets. Even in the later works this does not stop the Buchbergers bringing a real depth to the music.

The first three CD’s cover the early five movement divertimenti style quartets Op.1 and Op.2. Believed to have been written between 1757 and 1759 these lighter works still have a lot to offer and show just where the young composer began with the string quartet medium.

It is from the six Op.9 quartets that Haydn showed development. Probably written between 1769 and 1770, the pattern of four movements is established. These quartets show tremendous invention and experimentation which continues through the Op.17 and Op.20 quartets.

By the time Haydn wrote his Op.33 quartets some of the extremes of his earlier works had given way to a greater structural logic and by Op.50 the fifty five year old Haydn brings a more serious and expansive tone.

By the time Haydn wrote his Op.64 quartets his circumstances had changed dramatically. His employer of many years, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, had died and the musical establishment at Esterhaza had been disbanded by his successor. Given a generous pension, Haydn was now free to travel and pursue an independent career that would soon bring him to London. Indeed the Op.71 and Op.74 quartets are in a more weighty style and sound very much as though they were written for a larger concert hall.

Haydn’s Op.76 quartets reach a pinnacle of achievement. Written in 1797, the composer would, by the standards of the time, have been considered elderly. Although written as a set of six, each quartet is very much an individually formed work surpassing all that had gone before.

Where to start then with this set? Well you can listen chronologically and enjoy hearing the development of the quartets or throw caution to the wind and just dib in. For sheer fun, try the Op.20 set and in particular No. 3 in which the Buchbergers bring out the marvellous textures in the music or No.4 that looks forward to Haydn’s later quartets. For a deeper musical experience try Op.50 about which, in his notes, Prof. Buchberger tells a fascinating story of how the autograph manuscript passed through the hands of Hummel and Clementi before travelling via London, New Zealand and Australia and ending up in private hands in Germany. Then there are Op.76 and Op.77 where you can experience late Haydn at his best.

This set includes the incomplete quartet Op.103 as well as Haydn’s own string quartet version of his Die sieben letzten Worte Op.51 (The Seven Last words of Christ on the Cross).

The playing of the Buchbergers is uniformly first rate as are the recordings made between 2002 and 2008 in the Evangelise Burgkirche, Nieder Rosbach, nr Frankfurt, Germany. The notes, provided on a CD-ROM, by Prof. Hubert Buchburger, leader of the Buchburger Quartet, are extremely full and informative.

Of course there will be individual recordings that have more to say about these works but, as an overall survey of Haydn’s quartets, this takes some beating particularly at such a ridiculously low price.

In case you are still puzzling over what a Baryton is, it was a bass string instrument that could be bowed and had underlying strings that could be plucked. It was an instrument that Haydn’s employer Prince Esterhazy played, hence the numerous trios written for it.

Having mentioned Haydn’s Op.103 quartet being left incomplete leads me on to my next blog which will look at works from Schubert to Pettersson that were left incomplete and have been completed or at least made performable. In particular I will look at the recent Dutton recording of Moeran’s Second Symphony.

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