HAYDN: Symphonies no. 53 “the Imperial”, no. 64 “Tempora Mutantur”, no. 96 “the Miracle” – Oregon Symphony/Carlos Kalmar – Pentatone SACD 5186 612, 61:51 (4/7/17) *****:
A well chosen concert of Haydn symphonies performed under the baton of Carlos Kalmar and played by the superb Oregon Symphony.
If you were to visit the city of roses, Portland, Oregon, you would surely take in the glorious amplitude of the world’s largest bookstore, Powell’s Books. An entire afternoon would hardly suffice to search for rare treasure and bask in the heady literary atmosphere of its hospitable coffee-shop. You might also want to sample the city’s world-famous ale in a first-rate brewpub, such as Ex Novo, which donates all of its profits to local charities. You would also want ensure that your visit included a performance of the illustrious Oregon Symphony under the direction of Carlos Kalmar at the elegant Schnitzer auditorium. The recording under review demonstrates that this orchestra, which has received multiple Grammy nominations in recent years, now belongs to the upper echelons of world orchestras.
The concert under review includes three Haydn Symphonies, two from the palmy Esterhazy years and one of the famous London Symphonies. By the time you find your seat, tens rows back dead center where you can feel the timpani through your feet, the skilled engineers at Pentatone will have solved all of the acoustical challenges of this historic Italian Rococo revival building. The ambience and clarity are remarkable. I have heard many concerts in the Schnitzer, none of which equals this recording for natural warmth and transparency. Such are the miracles of modern day acoustical science.
The liner notes tell us that the “Imperial” Symphony no. 53 in D major was one of Haydn’s most popular works. It was still performed regularly many year later when Haydn was in London, being hailed as the greatest living composer on the basis of his later works. Its appeal is obvious: a wealth of melodic ideas and a rollicking Finale that exhibits his patented quirks and playfulness. The elegance of the Menuetto perfectly matches the gilded decor of the concert hall. Perhaps I might quibble with assessment of the Andante in the liner notes. To begin with, the theme, borrowed from a French chanson, is below the level of Haydn’s inventive genius. Worse, it is subjected to a series of nine double-themed variations. From a modern perspective, the 18th-century form of theme and variations is the least durable part of the classical rhetoric. Even Beethoven, in his variations for cello and piano, produces a chorus of yawns. And who can bear the awful Mozart variations on “Ah vous dirai-je Maman” (recognized as “twinkle, twinkle little star.” Here, we might accord the stated “elegance” to the performance but not to work itself.
The second work, Symphony no. 64 in A Major, is actually an earlier composition than the Imperial. It possess a distinctive Largo, with many strange discontinuities and divagations. It expresses a special Haydnesque mood of pondering. The notes make a claim that both the title of the work Tempura Mutantur (“times change”) and this movement refer to the play Hamlet, especially the hero’s famous expostulation “time is out of joint.” In the end, however, the brooding does not go all that deep and certainly does not arrive at any dire conclusions. Overall, it is flawless and substantial symphony, and one feels fortunate to hear this rarely-performed work carried through with such dramatic focus.
The last piece, London Symphony no. 96, is well-known. Larger in scale, it was written expressly for public spaces like this auditorium. Reeds are given the pretty melodies in the Adagio introduction. Anon, we are swept up in the happiest Austrian dances and a hurly-burly of call and response. There are dark fugal passages and intricate harmonies which prefigure Schubert in their modest dissonant clashes. The Finale: Vivace assai is just that, a spirited sprint towards the finish line that brings everyone to the edge of their seats if not leaping out of them. (The engineers, however, have wisely decided to erase all audience noise) Overall, this represents a culminating articulation of 18th century symphony. At the same time, it prepared the way for early Beethoven, to which it can be compared in terms of drama and expressive range. Carlos Kalmar, an Uruguayan of Austrian heritage, sounds perfectly at home in this repertoire. The Oregon Symphony has all the dazzle and finesse of the hometown favorites, the Portland Trailblazers, but greater cohesiveness and better tuning than the one-time NBA champs.
To conclude, we affirm this is as a grand performance of the immortal Haydn that catches a world-class symphony at the top of their game. Listening to it in the comfort of my living room, I wonder what it would be like to live in the City of Roses and be able to hear music like this on a regular basis. But then the sound of pelting rain pulls me from my revery and reminds me that, in fact, I do. From the home of the Oregon Symphony, the brewpub capital of the world, Powell’s, the Blazers, and the headquarters of Audiophile Audition, I salute our readers!
TrackList: Symphony no. 53 in D Major; Symphony no. 64 in A Major; Symphony no 96 in D Major