Ottavio Dantone has been associated with Accademia Bizantina since 1989. He has recorded as a harpsichordist with ensembles and essayed all 555 of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard Sonatas. On this Decca release, Haydn’s Symphonies 79 and 81 are documented for the first time on ‘period’ instruments.
One of the characteristics of Dantone’s interpretative style is that he never allows notes to go beyond their allotted duration. This suits the first two movements of No.78 because Haydn often puts staccato marks. The result is immense crispness in the playing and also ensures that the lengthy Adagio retains a hint of the dance. The somewhat speedy Minuet convinces because the rhythm is held firmly and the quaint Trio, with its delightful solo for bassoon, is deftly achieved. As in all the Minuets here repeats are made before and after the Trio. Not surprisingly, having heard how Dantone improvises in some of Scarlatti’s Sonatas, he also adds the occasional decoration in repeated sections of the Symphonies – especially when Haydn invites such action by putting a fermata over a silence, but such effects are not overdone. The Finale sounds bright enough but I regret the decision to use the horns in C at the lower octave; despite the lively playing there is a general dullness of texture as it comes to an end.Accademia Bizantina is quite weighty in the first movement of No.79 and the excellent sound quality makes this relatively modest group give a powerful effect while still achieving admirable clarity. Consistent characteristics are revealed here – not least a welcome liveliness activated by rhythmic incisiveness. There are fewer staccato markings here but Dantone insists on crisp chording and obtains clearly articulated woodwind phrasing; he also gives the bassoonist ample opportunity to shine. This is the composer in commanding form and the calm Adagio cantabile makes a big contrast – but take nothing for granted, because at bar 61 Haydn throws in the instruction un poco allegro and the movement turns into a jolly romp; Dantone has it bouncing cheerfully to its close. The rhythmically strong Minuet is given with touches of unmarked crescendo-diminuendo effects and the quirky Trio is delightful with suitable flute decorations on repetitions. The Finale sustains a few personal touches such as hastening some of the brighter sections but it is the overall sense of gaiety that wins over the listener.
In Symphony 80 seriousness descends, and I am not fully convinced by Dantone’s approach. Fierce and swift is a good way to treat the opening movement and the very strong sforzandos add to the drama, but the big relaxation for the quiet theme just before the repeat is disruptive; after the restatement this contrast becomes even more disruptive and Haydn’s carefully calculated dramatic pauses are confusing because of the lack of a steady tempo. The eloquent Adagio does not linger – nor should it since here it is double the length of the first movement but there is a lack of expressiveness and the passionate, ornamented descending phrases from bar 17 which anticipate a similar wondrous moment in Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music (K477) go for nothing. Realisation of ornamentation is also debatable in the fast, lightly phrased Minuet where the appoggiaturas are clipped short to lumpy effect; the yearning Trio section is also somewhat matter-of-fact. Nevertheless I must praise Dantone for ignoring the spurious fermata signs found in the Universal Edition publication that he uses which, if observed, would ruin the final bars of both the Minuet and the Trio.
Symphony 81 brings a further query regarding the printed score because the repeat mark at the end of the Trio is surely erroneous since Haydn had written out the repeat in full without using da capo signs. It is difficult to understand why Dantone should observe this specious instruction – few other conductors do so. The performance reflects the current notion of authenticity – swift tempos, clear-cut rhythmic emphasis and observance of all repeats, but does this advance our understanding of Haydn? When in the 1960s H. C. Robbins Landon’s editing cleared up the anomalies that had previously clouded understanding of the music. Admirable recordings of the Symphonies were recorded by David Blum, Max Goberman and Leslie Jones. There was creative thinking here and taking No.81 as an example Blum in New York and Dorati in his 1965 Bath Festival appearance made recordings that were interpretatively imaginative.
Dantone obtains splendid playing and offers some interesting ideas but there are times when more could be revealed – the bland slow movement of No.80 disappoints and in the Finale of No.81 the second-half repeat restates with extraordinary exactitude precisely what was done first time. I am reminded that Leopold Stokowski raised a very pertinent question about repeats: “why should it be the same every time?”.
Despite reservations however, there are many aspects fresh and original about Dantone’s attractive set of infrequently performed Haydn Symphonies.