Most would agree that Haydn's symphonies, trios and piano/keyboard sonatas seem to contain an almost inexhaustible stream of imagination. The concerti, while being wonderfully varied and inspiring compositions, do not have the same depths and breadth. Nevertheless, not only are such pieces as the trumpet concerto in E Flat Major (Hob.VIIe:1), D Major cello concerto (Hob.VIIb:2) and piano concerti (Hob.XVIII:3, 4, 9, 11) both well known and regulars in the concert and recording repertoire. But they also contain much great music. These prominent examples also make good introductions to the other works of the composer in their respective genres. This very pleasing collection from Naxos contains two dozen concerti by Haydn on six CDs. It almost goes without saying that this is at a price of a little over US$1.50 each! If this corner of Haydn's repertoire is unfamiliar to you or if you want much better than "satisfactory" accounts of the concerti gathered together, this is certainly the set to get.
That Haydn wrote as many concerti as he did attests to the significant variety in this corner of his output. The challenge for conductor Helmut Müller-Brühl was to expose such variety. Each concerto needs to be given its due in its own right. Of course having over a dozen different soloists (albeit playing different instruments) with the one orchestra, the Cologne Chamber Orchestra, helps in that respect. The project has also succeeded by nevertheless presenting enough of a unified vision of the concerti as melodious, inventive, confident and at times adventurous compositions on the one hand; yet as works indicative of the composer's determination to be individualistic, non-conformist, surprising, even, on the other.
Two decisions will have been made in the production of this set: which concerti to include and which to exclude in accordance with current scholarship; and whether or not to use period instruments… the Oboe Concerto (Hob.VIIg:C1) and the Horn Concerto No 2 (Hob.VIId:4) are both missing from this set. While the D Major Cello Concerto (Hob.VIIb:2) is included. And, although modern instruments are played, period practices have been observed. After listening to the set right through, that is likely to be considered a satisfactory state of affairs.
A common characteristic of other performances of the Haydn concerti is to overlay them with an ebullience, a brashness, almost, which they do not deserve. They are not nineteenth century showpieces. Such movements as the subtle and gentle slow movement of the C Major violin concerto (Hob.VIIa:1 [CD.1 tr.2]) reveal immediately the extent to which Müller-Brühl has taken, if not the opposite approach – the renditions are still full of life – then a more sober and, quite honestly, a more respectful one. In place of bombast and volume are springy freshness, and thoughtful articulation of the melodic lines as the small orchestra supports and provides contrast with the soloists.
A set of this kind has the attributes of having grouped together all examples of the genre – in this case the concerto, of course. To that end, it ought to go some way towards identifying what is distinct about, in this case, Haydn's approach to pitching soloist against orchestra. This Naxos collection is singularly successful in this regard. The playing of the Cologne Chamber Orchestra is unobtrusive and supportive enough for the timbre, pace and melodic development of each of the soloists to be clear and pleasing. Similarly, the playing reveals the musical characteristics of the horn, violin, flute, harpsichord, fortepiano, organ, oboe, cello, recorder, trumpet and piano themselves as Haydn wrote for them. At the same time the consistency of balance achieved by Müller-Brühl stimulates us to consider how Haydn envisaged each instrument in an orchestral context. We know he tended to write for the virtuosi at his disposal. But at this distance in time we also want to celebrate the blend of soloist and wider canvas regardless of who shone as player(s) of their instrument in the eighteenth century.
This exploration of soloist, orchestra and collaboration between the two is nowhere better exemplified than in the gorgeous fourth CD which contains the four keyboard concerti, here played on the piano by Sebastian Knauer. To call them revelations is no exaggeration. Not only is each theme developed without show; yet with great style. But individual movements are also presented in such a way that we marvel at how Haydn contrasts with his contemporaries. Those who might advocate Haydn over Mozart and Beethoven would claim that the Rondo and Presto movements of the first G Major (Hob.XVIII:4) [CD.4 tr.9], for example, "run rings around" anything Mozart achieved. Less dramatically, they would point to a sweetness and yet a density of invention, on which this performance demonstrates beyond any doubt, Mozart did not have a monopoly. And they would invite very favorable comparison between the Adagio of the second G Major piano concerto [CD.4 tr.11] and an equivalent by Beethoven. The danger is that such a contrast brings us up short, and risks hampering our appreciating the music on its own terms. Not here. In the unemphatic hands of Knauer we do indeed have those qualities of the music exposed for us that make it so remarkable, so full of impact and of delight. At the same time it's played as if that is all to be expected. This is Haydn. This is how he wrote. A happy balance indeed.
Nor does the playing of these, or any of the other, concerti leave us disappointed. Haydn's level of creative impetus was rarely so high as in the symphonies, string quartets, choral works and probably sonatas. But the concerti are played for what they are. That's a good thing. Helmut Müller-Brühl has approached the less familiar with the same earnestness and confidence as he has, say, the more familiar Trumpet Concerto and D Major Cello concerto (no. 2). In a way these make bridges for our appreciation of the three violin concerti, which are superbly played by Augustin Hadelich. They make good foils for the endlessly fascinating Double Concerto for violin and fortepiano, which may nevertheless be a discovery for some. The performance balances excitement with intimacy in a way that will linger long after the final note has died away. Then, of course, there are the concerti for lire organizzate on the sixth CD. Without doubt sui generis, the way they have been approached in this set never confers upon them mere curiosity value. Unaccustomed as most players these days will be with such a sound world, the players still enter into their spirit, live up to their technical challenges and produce music that is convincing and enjoyable, if bounded by limitations of which, one suspects, Haydn would not have been unaware.
The weakest of the CDs are the fifth and sixth. The organ and harpsichord concerti (Hob.XVIII:1, 5, 7, 8, 10) lack the invention and depth of the other works in the form by Haydn. There is – at times – a certain predictability and reliance on formula. Soloists and ensemble nevertheless make the most of the works, infusing them with pep and nonchalance. These qualities lift the works as far above the mundane as they can reasonably be lifted. On CD 6 we might have heard the five concerti for lire organizzate played that way: the instrument was a kind of hurdy-gurdy with a wheel (controlled by a crank) which both operated the strings and powered the bellows required for a small pipe organ that was attached to the instrument, which looked like a large guitar. As it is, Müller-Brühl has chosen to employ wind instruments: two recorders (for HobVIIh:1 and 5), flute and oboe (for HobVIIh:2 and 4) and two flutes (for HobVIIh:3). There can be no denying that these make less of an impact. Indeed, at times the balance between orchestra and flute results in the latter coming off very much the worse for wear – barely a concerto presence at all. The oboe fares better. But the sense of contrast and presence which the solo instruments ought to have had has been lost. Still useful to have these performances. And, at Naxos' prices, the playing of the other four CDs still makes the set a worthy bargain.
The booklet that comes with the concerti is over 300 pages long and deals with all of the Naxos Haydn offerings for this anniversary year… the symphonies, quartets, sonatas. This is just a little odd. Only a tenth of the booklet actually deals with the concerti themselves, in addition to the track listings etc. The set's presentation – each CD comes in its own cardboard sleeve – and acoustic supplement the superb playing, which does Haydn proud. If you are looking for a collection of the less familiar, yet the substantial and stimulating, orchestral works of Haydn, and demand the best from the soloists supported by a sensitive and versatile orchestra with no discernible unevenness in playing that's also interpretatively strong, Naxos has provided it. Recommended.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey