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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphonies - Volume 6 Lamentatione
Symphony No.3 in G Major, H.I:3 [13.48]
Symphony No.26 in D Minor, Hob I:27 ‘Lamentatione’ [15.51]
Symphony No.79 in F Major, Hob. I:79 [23.23]
Symphony No.30 in C Major Hob.I:30 ‘Alleluia’ [14.03]
Kammerorchester Basel/Giovanni Antonini
rec. Landgasthof Riehen, Basel, 2017
ALPHA 678 [67:05]

When I was young, and before Ernst Maerzendorfer’s and Antal Dorati’s pioneering recordings of the complete Haydn symphonies, respectively on MHS and Decca, there was a widespread assumption that only the London symphonies, and a few others – perhaps the Paris set – were worthy of repeated public performance. Dorati’s set – which came out with some of the finest record notes I have ever seen, by H.C. Robbins Landon - revealed the extraordinary treasures which spoke to more than the specialist. Those recordings had a wonderful musicality, even if to ears grown used to period sound they can seem statelier than we have come to expect, and they repay continual revisiting. Since then, of course, there have been other fascinating sets, from Adam Fischer and from various conductors on Naxos and Decca.

What makes the Antonini set special – apart from the period instruments – is the slow-burn approach of recording over so many years: this is the sixth volume and the set is due to complete in 2032. The obvious advantage is that each symphony can be pondered in preparation so that nothing becomes routine. No less interesting will be to see how interpretative style develops over the span of the project. The recordings are shared between the Basle Chamber Orchestra and Antonini’s own Il Giardino Armonico. On the evidence of the six releases so far, this will be a set to treasure – musically informed (Antonini works closely with the musicologist Christian Moritz-Bauer), sensitive and beautifully played.

From the marketing point of view, it might seem a good wheeze to give each CD a theme – here, ‘lamentation’, accompanied by booklet photographs of Evangelical baptismal – and other – ceremonies. Frankly, that is a stretch: Haydn as a Catholic would have been unfamiliar with such things, and baptism, to a Christian, is not a cause for lamentation, but rejoicing. Even then, the theme of lamentation is strictly attached only to one of these symphonies. Antonini in his notes, tries, not altogether convincingly, to develop the theme. Each release so far has a name, but to sustain this over all the remaining releases will be quite a challenge. Forget the attempt to create a theme, and instead concentrate on the glorious music.

And glorious it all is, both as compositions and as performances. The orchestra is light and responsive (strings are 6:5:4:3) and no harpsichord is used. The musicians are obviously enjoying themselves, while taking the music seriously. Listen, for example to the care lavished on Symphony No.3. There is no hint of condescension. The andante is given the weight it deserves and the finale – less than two minutes of it – is much more than the quick bit to get some applause. The ‘Lamentation’ of Symphony No.26 relates directly to the use of plainchant themes from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, apparent in the first movement. But the heart of this three-movement symphony, it seems to me, lies in the central Adagio, almost eight minutes long. Here Antonini and his players achieve something quite remarkable. From the opening bars both warmth and rhythmic security mark a meditative utterance – one of Haydn’s finest from this period in his career. Nothing is trivial in this humane expressiveness. Symphony No. 30 cites the Holy Saturday plainchant ‘Alleluia’, an idea woven into the work with striking effect, sometimes hidden away, sometimes in the foreground. The much later Symphony No. 79 reveals the playful, entertaining Haydn, the master of his craft confidently playing tricks with the rules. Antonini lets the music’s tricks speak for themselves, scrupulously following the markings in the score to produce as fine a performance as I have heard.

Recording took place in the setting of the Landgasthof Riehen – a hotel often used for concerts, and with a fine acoustic. I wonder how many other recording venues are Michelin-listed (two forks) – but I suspect the urbane Papa Haydn would have approved….

Michael Wilkinson


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