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April 2007

Prissy Haydn? Basta!

April 5, 2007 22:37

I willfully persist in my belief that Haydn is one of the most underrated and talented composers in history. Furthermore, one that individual players, groups and orchestras really can learn so much from. Consider the way Zuhbin Mehta insisted on the Israel Philharmonic having a massive grounding in Haydn symphonies from the beginning.
Why is it then that the poor guy seems to get the general nod of approval but somehow is not spoken of in the same breath as Mozart, Beethoven et al? A couple of recent incidents spring to mind. First, I attended the dress rehearsal the cellist I mentioned in a recent post who was performing the d major concerto. Admittedly the acoustic of the venue was basically marble and really favored the bass end, but the cellist was actually drowning the rather good amateur orchestra while the conductor was urging the poor violins to play not only more classically (presumably `delicately`) but also `much quieter because it is the accompaniment to a concerto.` Now, as I mentioned, these players were pretty good including a colleague of mine who is actually a successful professional. Eventually there was a general consensus that things were not working too well so the conductor, who is a good friend of mine came over to ask what to do. I suggested they play with great energy using much more bow and a very solid sound; make a great deal more of the dynamics; play good solid notes held to full length and forget about trying to throw in exaggerated feminine endings all over the place. That turned it back into music as opposed to the nervous scratching of mice.
Then recently I was rehearsing a Haydn trio and both the cellist and piano player seemed concerned about using a wide range of dynamics, accents, and contrasts. It was almost like they wanted to play it just as written on the page because, as the pianist remarked, `it is Haydn. ` Actually, I knew it was Haydn because that was what was written on the cover. Apart from that I couldn’t see any reason why that name had some kind of tacit implication that expressiveness is to be temporarily suspended until we get to the Beethoven. Nothing wrong with the way Casals and Thibaud played in my book. Apparently energy, dynamics and excitement are temporarily out of fashion.
I think Harnoncourt got it right when he talked about how composers have been classified in certain ways without the benefit of serious scholarship or even basic commonsense. Haydn is the bread and butter precursor of the `higher level` genius of Mozart who is kind of elegant and requires small orchestras (absolutely incorrect if you ever read what Mozart wrote!). Beethoven is the biggie who blew it all apart with his new level of violence in music and then Schubert hovers around without being dramatic because he was a lyrical kind of guy. This last is a direct result of a 19C bowdlerization of Schubert scores by Brahms and his intellectual circle. Schubert played with respect to the urgent score is as manic and outrageous as Beethoven.
Pursuing this line of thought I put on a CD of Bruno Walter conducting Haydn Symphony no 102. Now I am big Walter fan and of course it was beautiful and well done but somehow it seemed a little dull, rather like Haydn on symphony programs is basically a warm up. This seemed to me to be a reflection of the way 19C and early 20C styles of conducting have inhibited exploration of different orchestral sounds. I then stuck in the same symphony conducted by Harnoncourt predicting that since he is very thorough in his research on original sounds, scores and instrumentation that it would be a bit more lively , brisk and dare I say delicate. Not at all. It was raucous, aggressive, and passionate; crammed full of accents, explosions and highly dramatic. I loved it. Haydn would have loved it too, I guess. That seemed to me to be a good lesson for the chamber music.

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