The Apollo Ensemble was founded by John Hsu to perform early Haydn symphonies on period instruments. The forces deployed are the modest ones it’s reckoned Haydn had at Esterhazy Palace. The ensemble is fifteen strong: 4 first violins, 3 second violins, viola, cello, violone, 2 oboes, bassoon and 2 horns. The instrumental balance secured is excellent.
In Hsu’s hands Symphony 28 (tr. 1) has an inviting, direct appeal right from the start. The first movement is sustained by its five note opening pattern. The first violin line is rhythmically offset by the lower strings with the horns occasionally adding a celebratory layer, like a beam of sunlight. The recording has a pleasing forward projection within a smooth acoustic, the strings penetrating, the horns sonorous. We know from Adam Fischer’s Haydn cycle
recorded on modern instruments at Esterhaza (Nimbus NI 1722) that the authentic acoustic is a still more reverberant one. You’re more aware of the attractive balance and blend of instruments than their numbers. Hsu manages this Allegro di molto
as a perpetuum mobile
which is lively and unceasing yet never feels rushed. The development (2:23) brings a cloud over the proceedings, to which the first violins’ response is to be more steely and assertive in order to be able to move seamlessly to a calm recapitulation. There’s a surprise in the shape of a solo oboe taking over the top line and briefly deviating from A major to A minor. The firmer, more butch tone of the period oboe here accentuates the contrast.
The slow movement’s (tr. 2) the muted violins sustain a warm, dignified melody in the lower register punctuated by staccato
responses in upper register. The effect is like a kindly and wise elder being undeterred by a junior’s wisecracking. The mature perspective has the final word. The Minuet and Trio (tr. 3) is especially fascinating. In the Minuet divided first and second violins exchange quavers in rapid succession. The stimulating abrasive effect on period instruments brought to mind Copland’s Hoe Down.
After this assured and modern-sounding attack the Trio is like a Renaissance dance but one in which all phrases end with a question.
The finale (tr. 4) is an even truer perpetuum mobile
than the first movement and a bubbling one. The entire symphony is given an excellent performance made more attractive in that there’s no other period instrument recording of it currently available in the UK.
After middle-period Haydn we hear Symphony 18 which is an early work. This begins (tr. 5) with a slow movement which, structurally and in terms of its musical organization, might be by Handel. Hsu catches well this cultivated archaism. Haydn’s novelty, which he also reveals, lies in the tone of the piece. It has a nonchalance beyond Handel’s urbanity; it also has sudden bursts of forte
amid the prevailing piano
and corresponding energy to keep both players and listeners alert. I compared the 1993 recording made by the Hanover Band/Roy Goodman (Hyperion Helios CDH55115). Here are the comparative timings
Where Hsu is nonchalant Goodman prefers to be calm and fastidious
which makes the loud contrasts more startling yet less vibrant.
Goodman’s comparative lack of momentum and direction palls, particularly
in the sequential writing for violins which Hsu displays convincingly
as a logical progression of the argument. Goodman uses a harpsichord
continuo judiciously elaborated in the repeats. Hsu doesn’t use
a keyboard continuo. Recent scholarship doesn’t favour it and
Hsu’s performances show it isn’t necessary.
The real energy in this symphony comes in the fast second movement (tr. 6) which finds the oboes in a stronger role doubling the violins and the horns more evident in fanfare mode. Here Hsu goes for trimness which makes it for me a smidgen laid back: it might dazzle more without being aggressive. Similarly the violins’ descending tremolandi
from 2:50 might be even more shimmering. I like the touch of brashness that Goodman finds here with more rasping horns and more cheeky oboes while the harpsichord provides a background percussive quality so in all there’s a more bustling feel.
Trimness continues and appropriately in the Tempo di Menuet
(tr. 7). This has elegance and sheen yet also some bounce. G major turns to G minor in the Trio (1:17) but the period strings make this earnestly percipient rather than sad. After the written out return of the ‘Minuet’ without repeats a brief coda (3:31) provides a concise sense of summation so the symphony can end without a finale. Hsu shows a little more spring in this movement whereas Goodman brings more grandeur and I prefer the greater bloom of Goodman’s oboes. But Hsu’s Trio is the more successful. It brings a lighter, more vibrant contrasting of the sudden forte
emphases and a penetrating string tone with more expressive and searching first violin line.
Symphony 52 is one of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang
(Storm and Stress) works. Here dynamic contrasts deliver a passionate, dramatic force. Its opening movement (tr. 8) begins angrily but ends in the manner of a pleading aria. The way this is contrived is both artistically very satisfying and very human. The opening theme in C minor is boldly trudging and stark but the second theme (0:52) is in E flat major and is relaxed and tripping. It sports a coyly elaborated return towards the end of the exposition. While it flirts with representation in the minor in the development it’s only in the recapitulation (5:17) that its appearance is firmly in the minor. It’s then that its slightly more elaborated return at the end of the second half of the movement takes on a soulful cast. Hsu presents this all cleanly and clearly with an objectivity which honours its quality and effectiveness. You notice the work’s greater dramatic and emotional weight because of the comparison on this CD with the earlier symphonies. For instance, the horns now seem to be baying, not just sustaining notes.
I compared the 1988 recording by La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken (EMI 56180002) reissued in a Virgin box
. Here are the comparative timings with bracketed entries showing exact equivalents where there are variations in the making or omission of repeats.
Kuijken’s opening movement is grimmer with fiercer tutti
and a harpsichord continuo like a sabre. His dynamic contrasts
are more markedly and sternly articulated. His second theme is
more fragile, less warm; its extension is less charming and its
final elaboration is less touching. Unlike Hsu, Kuijken doesn’t
repeat the second half of the movement.
In the slow movement (tr. 9) the counterpoise of the two themes, this time major then minor, is the opposite of that in the first movement. In Hsu’s case muted violins begin with a warm, easy-going theme but one in which due note is taken of the dainty demisemiquaver rhythms to ensure some momentum. The second theme (0:34) is like a rebuke: restless with chromatic anguish. In this movement also the second theme is elaborated, this time into something of the nature of yearning, articulated by Hsu with some finesse. Unfortunately he doesn’t make this movement’s second half repeat which distorts its balance as the exposition repeat is made. It’s also inconsistent with Hsu’s observation of repeats elsewhere. Kuijken doesn’t make the repeat either and is much more measured, more Adagietto
than the marked Andante.
I prefer Hsu’s greater progression and spontaneity. Kuijken’s gauzy muted violins display a more distinctive change of sonority from previously and the soft interplay between first and second violins and chromatic spicing from the lower strings in the exposition hold the attention. His loud tutti
s are more formal and in that appear more artificial, as do the violins’ sequences in the recapitulation.
The Minuet (tr. 10), taken at quite a fast Allegretto
, is assertive and angular, fretful in its offbeat thrusts. The Trio (0:56), a C major recasting of the Minuet in C minor, with oboes and horns doubling first and second violins suddenly sunnily prominent. This imparts a buoyant surface jollity but those offbeat thrusts still remain. By consistently emphasising them, as marked, the impression you get from Hsu parallels that of the finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, ‘you will
rejoice’. Kuijken plays the Minuet as a regular stately dance, another Adagietto
in effect. This comparative contrast in timing, as indicated by the bracketed entry in the above table is even greater because Hsu makes the repeats when the Minuet returns. This makes Kuijken somewhat turgid: a slow and doleful dance and a formal though rosier Trio.
In the finale (tr. 11) the tempo increases to Presto
and the nervous tension with it. A strong, broad statement by the horns seems to indicate light at the end of the tunnel and the exposition ends firmly in E flat major. In the second half C minor reaffirms itself in its own triumphant resolution; logic and realism wins out over optimism. Again Kuijken’s slower tempo means fire is relatively lacking until the tutti
s. The horns’ significant contributions stand out less than with Hsu whose greater urgency throughout is preferable.
All in all, Hsu’s CD provides a fine introduction to a range of Haydn symphonies performed on period instruments.