Haydn – Symphonies & Divertimentos – Sinfonia Classica

0 of 5 stars

Divertimento in A, Op.31/2
Symphony No.22 in E flat (Philosopher)
Divertimento in B flat, Op.1/1
Symphony No.49 in F minor (La Passione)

Sinfonia Classica
Gernot Süssmuth (violin)

Recorded 2007 in Tawstock Parish Church (sic)

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: June 2008
Duration: 73 minutes



Performances of Haydn’s music other than those of his most familiar works often arouse musicological discussions. This interestingly programmed release is no exception. I am delighted that attention is here paid to Haydn’s smaller-scale music for winds and strings – much of it is quite substantial – for example his Scherzandi were originally described as Symphonies.

The Divertimento in A is one of a group of six works for various instruments, with baryton, published by Artaria as Divertissements, by Forster as Overtures and by Longman & Broderip as Symphonies. These publishers grouped the works as Opus 31 and, to my knowledge, replaced the virtually obsolete baryton with flute although Landor’s booklet-note suggests that the replacement was “oboe or flute”. In terms of sound either is suitable as a replacement instrument. Oboe is used in this recording. There is some confusion in the booklet’s annotation because this Divertimento in A is incorrectly labelled as Hoboken:X.10 (it is actually Hoboken:X.3) and we are informed says that the Opus 31 works were written in 1755; in fact they date from 1775.

The finale of this work is a Minuet with five Trios and a coda. The Minuet is played six times and the coda is a varied version of the second part of the Minuet plus a few final chords. Sinfonia Classica leaves out the second part of the Minuet in its final appearance and play only the varied version. Whether this was the musicians’ choice or a feature of the particular edition they were using, I know not. The playing throughout is superb, though, particularly in the spectacular horn sequence in the second Trio in which the first such instruments is stratospherically high and the second incredibly low – an effect also used by Haydn in Symphony 51.

Symphony 22 brings another problem: I do not know if the reliable, most-often-used Universal Edition score was employed, but its editor, H. C. Robbins Landon, has suggested that it would be effective if the harpsichord continuo’s first entry is delayed until Figure 1 (bar 14) – a most perceptive idea. Not so in this recording, however, as there is no harpsichord – nor in ‘La Passione’. Unfortunately, there is no bassoon continuo either (Haydn is known to have preferred it as part of the continuo group); in fact there is a lack of continuo throughout. The note for the Opus 1/Number 1 Divertimento (better known as a string quartet) informs correctly that the double bass is still the foundation of the bass line but also that “its continuity is broken by interplay between instruments and so a harpsichord is no longer part of the picture.” This is a very unconvincing argument and it prompts me to be very sceptical: is this another way of saying, “we didn’t have a harpsichord”! All of Haydn’s string quartets of this period appeared in early editions as divertimenti and would generally require “two violins, viola and thoroughbass”. Sinfonia Classica here merely multiply the upper strings and I hear only a single double bass representing the continuo (only one such instrument appears in the booklet picture of the ensemble).

Despite these disappointing complications the actual performances are stylish and challenging. The ‘Philosopher’ has its opening Adagio played far more quickly than is usual but it is a valid way of approaching this dark and brooding piece with its sombre-coloured pair of cor anglais; and it makes sense to observe both repeats; in fact repeats are made generously and logically throughout all these performances. The remaining movements of the ‘Philosopher’ are taken at an exciting pace and with good inner clarity – a pity that the continuo-less bass line sounds so bare.

‘La Passione’ shares with the ‘Philosopher’ the unusual format of an opening slow movement. Once again the music moves forward firmly and the characteristic of slightly clipped phrasing is evident – some grace notes are halfway between being the short and the long variety. Because notes are not lingered over, the rhythms sound exceptionally strong and clarity is admirable – there is elegant playing in the Trio of the Minuet and the horn-players once again distinguish themselves. The finale is exceptionally fiery yet there is also much subtle phrasing within the gripping urgency – what a shame that those forceful bass interjections could not be given more point: here bassoon continuo is sadly missed.

Pointed playing keeps the early B flat Divertimento alive. The multiplication of upper strings makes an interesting difference to the familiar sound of the string quartet version despite my reservations about the lower end.

Sinfonia Classica is a superb band of players and the recorded sound is extremely beautiful – a very generous acoustic (Tawstock Parish Church is in the Barnstaple area of Devon), and yet there is exemplary clarity and superb detail. The balance has the horns a touch further forward than is usual but the nature of this music makes this very suitable. I look forward to hearing these talented musicians in more music of this period and I hope that their adventurous idea of programming symphonies with lightly scored chamber music will also be part of their future plans. I trust that in future they will consider using other instruments to support the bass line – this is really the only weakness in this splendidly recorded sequence of exceptionally fine interpretations.

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