Haydn: The Creative Genius – 14 Feb

Symphony No.6 in D (Le Matin)
Symphony No.26 in D minor (Lamentatione)
Trumpet Concerto in E flat
Symphony No.102 in B flat

David Blackadder (trumpet)

Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment
Frans Brüggen

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 14 February, 2003
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Part of the OAE’s ongoing Haydn series, this well planned concert was a treat for all Haydn lovers (and to judge from this sold-out concert they are legion). There is a story of Giulini conducting Verdi’s Requiem in Parma with the Philharmonia; after the ’Sanctus’, a very old man, a dead ringer for Verdi even down to his clothing, sprang to his feet and shouted “Viva Verdi”, then promptly sat down. At the end of this all-Haydn evening one felt similarly moved to spring to one’s feet and cry “Three Cheers for Haydn”.

All-Haydn evening! That is rare enough to be a cause for celebration. Too often Haydn is simply used as a warm-up for something else. What was startlingly clear from this chronologically planned concert was the enormous development and distinctiveness of each of Haydn’s symphonic periods – from rustic delights to quasi “Sturm und Drang” of ’Lamentatione’ to the splendour of No.102.

Also brought into focus from the start – and further heightened by the OAE’s period instrument timbres – was the sheer originality and unpredictability of Haydn’s writing. The extraordinary subtle opening ’Adagio’ sunrise of No.6 led to an ’Allegro’ played with the lightest of touches and featuring some wonderfully characterful woody flute-playing and distinctive horn sounds. The ’Adagio’ that follows is almost a concerto grosso and was played here with real depth of feeling. Just when one thinks this movement is over two forceful chords punctuate it and finally a postscript that might come from another planet; the shock of its ending beautifully realised in this performance. An exuberant Finale followed some hilariously characterised double bass playing from the irrepressible Chi-chi Nwanoku in the Trio. With a full complement of repeats, the symphony seemed more substantial than normal. Much as Brendel succeeds with Schubert sonatas, Brüggen has that rare ability to fill out and inhabit the forms and structures of the classical symphony as to make them sound totally organic.

In Symphony No.26, Brüggen’s patient speeds and overall approach were equally remarkable. In both outer movements of this three-movement work he chose speeds which were quite notably restrained and he side-stepped the over-forceful accentuation one sometimes hears in this piece, preferring instead to achieve his effects by precision of identity and careful dynamics. Though this Symphony may have certain “Storm and Stress” characteristics, it lacks the vehemence of the mid-period Haydn symphonies such as numbers 44 and 49. With Brüggen in charge we were rightly closer to the worlds of Gluck and CPE Bach; this was historically informed music-making in the best sense of the word. When the concluding Minuet was repeated, Brüggen slowed the pace very slightly, achieving an effect almost like a cinematic fadeout, which sounded revelatory. The central ’Adagio’ was graced with some quite sublimely good horn-playing from Andrew Clark and Martin Lawrence, breathing and phrasing as one, as well as some understated and subtle oboe work from Anthony Robson.

For the Trumpet Concerto, David Blackadder attempted to get as near as possible to the actual sound of the trumpet for which Haydn wrote: “a compromise instrument, halfway between a trumpet and a clarinet” to quote the soloist. This was an act of considerable courage because a great deal could have gone wrong. It certainly sounded a crucifyingly difficult instrument to play but there were real compensation in terms of the gentler timbre produced and the balance with the orchestra. Tempi were conspicuously well chosen – the ’Andante’ flowed freely and the Finale was exuberant. Blackadder received a well deserved ovation.

Symphony No.102 is perhaps the greatest and grandest of the 12 “London Symphonies”. It seemed but a small leap to the Beethoven of the Second Symphony. From the soft but weighty swelling unison B flat of the ’Largo’ which opens the piece, the difference in scale to all that had gone before was immediately apparent. Quite simply, this was as fine a performance of the symphony as one could wish to hear, with countless details of articulation and phrasing worked out in a way one seldom encounters. Almost invidious to pick out specific things, but the timpani lead-back into the first movement recapitulation was truly thrilling, and the whole ’Adagio’ sang with rare grace; there was an especially sensitive cello obbligato from David Watkin. The Menuetto was for once taken at a true ’Allegro’ (as marked) and the ’Presto’ finale was also up to speed but cannily not so fast as to prevent some deliciously precise articulation. To parody Air Canada’s advert, this was a performance “so good that one did not want to get off”.

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