Is Haydn the “most under-rated great composer there has been”? Sir Simon Rattle certainly thinks so and he’s on a mission to champion an imaginative and resourceful voice considered too often hidden in Mozart’s shadow.
At first glance, Haydn: An Imaginary Orchestral Journey may appear to be another ‘greatest hits’ compendium. But it quickly reveals itself instead as an intelligently assembled, ebulliently played attempt to go beyond the surface brilliance of Haydn’s music.
Celebrating Haydn the innovator, Rattle has fashioned a programme of excerpts from his symphonies, oratorios and operas to create, he says, “a musical journey through all that is quirky and extraordinary, humorous and profound in Haydn”.
Going against the grain of period-instrument performances, this live recording by the London Symphony Orchestra manages, for the most part, to be idiomatically authentic while making a persuasive claim for the emotional heft offered by modern forces. It begins, appropriately enough, with profundity. The opening movement of The Creation and violent ‘Earthquake’ finale from The Seven Last Words are both grave and solemn, but Rattle finds compelling majesty, too, and lets Haydn’s signature humanity shine through.
That quality – accented throughout by Rattle’s deftly nuanced conducting – is to the fore even in ‘Winter’, the bleakest part of The Seasons, where poetry and positivity are allowed to best pathos and pessimism.
The four-part Sinfonia-cum-Overture that opens the opera L’isola disabitata (The Desert Island) makes one want to hear more, its ‘Largo’ mysterious and dramatic, the ‘Allegretto’ deliciously calculating in its playfulness.
The sense of sublime that some would deny Haydn is to be found in the slow movement of Symphony No. 64 (he wrote 106 such works in all), lent here a sense of controlled grandeur by the LSO’s rich performance. Five other symphonies are featured, each providing different aspects of Haydn’s facility for crafting music that communicates with lightly-worn eloquence and a convivial sensibility defined by wit and wisdom. The finale to the 46th Symphony is an exemplary exercise in understated sophistication, that of Symphony No. 90 a masterly, mischievous tease with its involving rush towards what proves to be a false ending – beautifully realised here, with Rattle stretching the joke to even greater comic effect.
For sheer entertainment value, the Music for Musical Clocks, played on a mechanical pipe organ, carries itself with a becoming Music Hall novelty that Haydn would surely have approved of. Vivid recorded sound adds to the pleasure.
Rating: Performance: five stars Sound: four stars
Haydn: An Imaginary Orchestral Journey London Symphony Orchestra / Simon Rattle LSO Live LSO0808 (Released: February 2, 2018.)
Michael Quinn is a former deputy editor of Gramophone and Classic FM magazines and associate editor of The Classical Review. Widely published in print and online in the UK, USA, Australia and his native Ireland, he is an Artistic Assessor of Music with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and programming consultant to the region’s newest arts centre, Portico, Portaferry.
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