HAYDN: Symphony No. 57 in D Major; Symphony No. 67 in F Major; Symphony No. 68 in B-flat Major – Philharmonia Baroque Orch./ Nicholas McGegan – Philharmonia Baroque

HAYDN: Symphony No. 57 in D Major; Symphony No. 67 in F Major; Symphony No. 68 in B-flat Major – Philharmonia Baroque Orch./ Nicholas McGegan – Philharmonia Baroque PBP-08, 78:29 (2/10/15) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Nicholas McGegan and his ensemble of original instruments (estab. 1981) address three Haydn symphonies from the fertile period of the early 1770s, in which the composer’s experiments with harmonic and textural structures began to peak in the service of his patron, Prince Nikolaus Eszterhazy. Recorded between February and October 2014, these inscriptions – engineered and edited by David V.R. Bowles – capture the incisive clarity of Haydn’s often audacious symphonic inventions.

McGegan opens with the 1774 Symphony No. 57 in D Major, a work first introduced to me, unforgettably, by Max Rudolf and the Cincinnati Symphony.  After a chromatically-engaging introduction, the Allegro bursts forth in dazzling march rife with wonderfully fluent turns and woodwind fioritura. The peppy first movement has always captivated the foot-tapping imagination of its auditors. The Adagio, a set of four variants on a theme, proffers some modal harmonies in the course of its evolution. What engages us are Haydn’s shifting dynamics and textures, alternating pizzicato and arco, soft and loud. Haydn invests no less imagination into his Menuet and Trio, a robust laendler whose central, four-beat section appears comparatively bleak and tuneless. McGegan delivers crisp entries that contrast with the bare, open chords that serve as a response to the rustic good humor of the outer sections. Within the sonata-form structure of the last movement, Haydn concocts a virile Prestissimo that anticipates his later “The Hen” symphony for its barnyard sonorities. The Philharmonia Baroque negotiate the whirlwind string triplets with a deft, breathless savoir faire that more often than not sends the roosters scampering for cover.

Few commentators remain unimpressed by the ceaseless ingenuities of Haydn’s 1775 Symphony No. 67 in F Major.  The opening Presto in 6/8 tends to gush with a fertile energy usually reserved for a final movement. Horns and oboes make their stormy presence known, sometimes interrupted by a pregnant pause before a shift to the minor mode that we associate with the C.P.E. Bach “expressive” school of musical thought. The secondary theme in flowing eighth notes has a mesmerizing effect, though it soons yields to the unbuttoned energy that includes some clever counterpoint.

The Adagio, too, exploits sounds and silences most effectively, with long-held notes in winds and horns. The oboes reassert their lyric capacity over a running string figure. In sonata-form, Haydn has the alternating string sections imitate each other polyphonically as a developmental ploy. The studied clarity of the Philharmonia Baroque strings and winds creates a lovely, resounding texture that assumes even more piquancy at the coda, in which the original tune appears col legno d’arco, a percussive effect on wood on strings which Rossini would appropriate for his own use. The brief Menuetto exploits repeated, martial notes; but the Trio steals the show in its use of two violin soli, the lower of the two pitched to a low F to provide a rustic drone under the first violin’s high E string! The Finale (Allegro di molto) unleashes a series of minor wonders, including central section, Adagio e cantabile in 3/8 played as a string trio! Poised on a dominant chord, the string trio segues into the accompanying strings, horns, and winds that well sound like an outdoor cassation. Four repeated big chords bring a ceremonial touch prior to the recapitulation of the opening furor, but the last bars include an extended first violin trill that wait the coup de grace from the tutti.

The Symphony No. 68 in B-flat Major (1774) first made its impression on me via a visit from Alexander Schneider as conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Akin to his “barnyard” symphony companions, Haydn likes those jumpy accents, Vivace, that can explode with power or pun in clever harmonic modulations. The presence of “Mannheim rockets” contributes to the many bravura elements of the first movement. The work of the Philharmonia’s low winds speaks a special eloquence. Haydn inverts the usual progression of movements with a Menuetto in second place, an aristocratic dance whose Trio section indulges in off-beat syncopes that herald the sonority of his later work in London. Muted legato strings with ostinato accompaniment, clock-like, open the expansive Adagio cantabile, whose sheer length anticipates the late Romantic composers. McGegan moves this curious, episodic serenade without sag, the pert accents and sudden woodwind gestures urging us to attend an affecting ceremony.  The Rondo proffers a muscular contredanse in a series of textural contrasts, including irreverent bassoons, oboes, and minor modes of a decidedly sturm und drang character. As a showpiece for the string and woodwind components of this gifted ensemble, the finale has served well to impress us with controlled fervor, expertly balanced.

—Gary Lemco

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