Wednesday 11 March 2020

La Roxolana: Giovanni Antonini reaches volume eight of his complete Haydn symphonies series

Haydn Symphonies Nos. 28,43,63, Bartok Romanian Folk Dances; Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini; Alpha Classics
Haydn Symphonies Nos. 28,43,63, Bartok Romanian Folk Dances; Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini; Alpha Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 March 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Folk influences form the thread running through this vividly engaging volume from a projected complete Haydn symphonies

Anyone announcing a complete edition of Haydn's symphonies on disc is very much holding a hostage to fortune. There are 107 known symphonies, and many projects have fallen by the wayside before completion. Now the Joseph Haydn Stiftung of Basel has joined forces with the Alpha label to record all the symphonies in time for 2032, the 300th anniversary of the composer's birth. Giovanni Antonini is conducting and the orchestral honours are shared between Il Giardino Armonico and the Basel Chamber Orchestra.

Volume Eight of Giovanni Antonini's complete Haydn symphonies on Alpha Classics, La Roxolana, features Il Giardino Armonico performing Haydn's Symphony No. 63 La Roxolana, Symphony No. 43 Mercury and Symphony No. 28, plus Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances and an anonymous Sonata Jucunda.

Antonini is grouping the symphonies thematically, and recording them alongside music written by other composers contemporary with Haydn or in some way connected. The link on this disc is folk music. It crops up a lot in Haydn, after all he would have heard folk and gypsy bands whilst in Esterhaza, and music such as his Gypsy Rondo piano trio pays explicit homage to this. On this disc, Antonini groups three symphonies, each of which has elements that can be traced to folk music. Alongside this, very intriguingly, the orchestra plays Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances.

What never ceases to amaze is the sheer inventiveness of Haydn's writing, the freshness, wit and imagination that he brings to music which could easily be seen as being churned out for the delectation of his employer, the Prince Eszterhazy.  In all three symphonies on this disc, Antonini and the orchestra bringing vivid energy to bear, but though speeds can be fast the music never feels driven and there is a wonderful sense of engagement. This is playing that makes you want to listen to more.

As with many other symphonies of the period, Haydn's Symphony No. 63, which dates from 1779/80, combines pre-existing music with newly written. The opening movement comes from his opera Il mondo della luna (from 1777), whilst the second movement seems to be music from the theatrical comedy Solimann der Zweyte, oder die drey Sultaninnen (Suleiman II, or the three sultanas) which was performed at Eszterhaza each year from 1772. One of the characters in the play is Roxelane, hence the nickname of the symphony and the feeling that the melodic material has a sinuous exoticism to it.

After an opening movement combining energy and attack with some style, the slow movement which gives the symphony its name is indeed rather rustic with some delightfully quirky corners. The Menuet is rather robust but with phrases that tail away in an interesting manner, whilst the perky finale makes much of the contrasts between loud and soft.

In September 1770, Prince Nicolaus I Esterhazy's niece got married at the Prince's Hungarian palace in Esterhaza (a glorious place, but in the middle of nowhere and on a former swamp!). The celebrations included Haydn's opera Le pescatrici and a new symphony. This was probably Symphony No. 43 Mercury.

The opening movement contrasts delicacy with drama, and Antonini and his players bring energy and colour to the music. The slow movement is graceful with minor mode hints, and there is another robust minuet this time over a marching bass, albeit with a graceful trio. The opening of the finale seems to hesitate, before rushing on with furious energy. As ever with these symphonies, there are moments which intrigue and make you wonder where the music is going to.

Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances are based on music from Transylvania, a region which had been transferred from Hungary to Romania after the First World War. To Bartok's string writing, Antonini adds baroque flute and early clarinet (chalumeau), both instruments which evoke folk instruments.

The orchestra transfers the energy and vigour from the Haydn onto the Bartok, with the vibrato-less straight-toned strings making just the right sound in this folk-influenced music. I loved the added colours of the flute and chalumeau.  And it isn't all robustness and energy, there are some lovely delicate moments, touching moments and hints of exoticism, rounded off with that headlong finale. This could well be my favourite account of this music.

The anonymous Sonata Jucunda, from a 17th century manuscript, is an evocation of local 'peasant music', in this case music from the Hana region of Moravia. It features an interesting alternation between rather serious music and furious energy with a gypsy swing.

On 9 May 1765, the Prince Nicolaus celebrated the birthday of his younger son with a performance of the comic play Die Insul der gesunden Vernunft (The Isle of Common Sense) and Haydn wrote incidental music for the performance.  The music from this has come down to us as Haydn's Symphony No. 28, with music which depicts the apparent 'primitiveness' of the islanders!

Antonini starts the first movement Allegro di molto with furious energy, making for a vivid performance. The slow movement is graceful, almost tentative, and the minuet is another vigorous dance. The infectious finale is again fast and furious.

You might not want to acquire every single one of this planned set, and certainly a disc of hitherto completely unknown Haydn symphonies might make you quail, but I found the performances on this disc infectiously engaging. Antonini and his players really make you want to listen, and to hear more.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) - Symphony No.63 in C major, Hob.I:63 'La Roxolana'
Franz Joseph Haydn - Symphony No. 43 in E flat major, Hob.I:43 'Mercury'
Bela Bartok (1881-1945) - Romanian Folk Dances, SZ.68, BB 76
Anonymous - Sonata Jucunda (MS Kromeriz, c.1673-1680)
Franz Joseph Haydn - Symphony No. 28 in A major, Hob.I:28
Il Giardino Armonico
Giovanni Antonini
Recorded at Euregio Kulturzentrum Gustav Mahler - Toblach (BZ), Italy, 18-22 May 2018

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