Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Haydn -- Go Seek

GRYTPYPE-THYNNE: Moriarty, what are you doing inside that piano?
MORIARTY: I'm hidin'!
GRYTPYPE-THYNNE: Don't be silly -- Haydn's been dead for years.
(The Goon Show)

As an enthusiastic but not particularly dedicated classical music fan, I don't have very strong opinions on whether standards of performance have gotten better or worse. I think that technical standards have gotten better -- there are more orchestras now and excellent playing can be heard even from so-called "provincial" orchestras -- but with the globalization of performing styles, everybody sounds more alike than they used to, so there are fewer really distinctive performers. It's easier to cast a baroque opera than it used to be, but pretty hard to cast a Verdi opera adequately (though I think things are better now than they were in the '80s, when I first discovered opera; "standard-repertoire" singing was pretty disastrous then). HIP -- Historically Informed Performance -- has revealed the vitality and viability of a lot of baroque music, but performances of Romantic music often seem kind of mechanical and halfhearted.

So it's a mixed bag. But I do think there's at least one great composer whose music is performed better today than it was in the past, and that's Haydn. Most of the Haydn recordings in my collection -- and there are a lot, because he's somewhere near my favorite composer -- were made in the last ten years or so. Now, part of the reason the great Haydn recordings tend to be fairly recent is that up until fairly recently, Haydn wasn't performed or recorded all that much. After the Romantics came along, Haydn was admired, for the most part (though Berlioz was openly dismissive of his music), but considered more of a pioneer than a great composer: the man who set the rules for form and structure, which his pupil Beethoven then used to create something really important.

But considering Haydn a less revolutionary Beethoven, or a less tuneful Mozart, wasn't really the problem with the way his music often tends to be performed. The problem is with the image of Haydn's music as basically friendly, charming, genial, easygoing. Thomas Beecham, the British conductor and wag, was the master of this style of Haydn performance. Up until the '50s Beecham was one of the few major conductors performing Haydn with any consistency (most other conductors would occasionally include a Haydn symphony on a program as filler, but Haydn was rarely the main attraction), and he deserves a lot of credit for helping to keep Haydn in the repertoire. But his way of performing Haydn symphonies was to smooth out all the roughness in the music, all the quirks of orchestration, the experiments with sonority and structure, the crude jokes (like the fart joke in Symphony no. 93). To get the sound he wanted out of Haydn, he would rework the scores; when corrected scores of Haydn symphonies became available in the '50s, Beecham refused to use them, claiming that some of Haydn's most unusual musical effects were "unmusical." Essentially a Beecham performance presents a Haydn symphony as a series of pretty tunes skillfully developed. That can be good to listen to, especially as skillfully as Beecham performed them -- but it creates the impression that Haydn was a lightweight compared to Mozart and Beethoven. And this doesn't make sense; Mozart acknowledged Haydn as the greatest composer of his era, and Beethoven, who had a touchy relationship with Haydn, nonetheless was heavily influenced by him. Why drain out all the things that made Haydn's music seem so worth imitating?

Anyway, the idea that Haydn needed to be "charming" above all else is part of the critical lexicon; you'll often read a review of a Haydn piece that says nothing about the approach of the performers or the way the piece sounds in their hands, but just generally praises or condemns it for the amount of abstract "charm" it possesses. For example, the Penguin Guide to Records had this to say about Otto Klemperer's recording of Haydn's Symphony no. 102 (a great recording, unfortunately out of print):

there is little of the magic or poetry that marked the old Beecham set or the warmth and humanity that endeared Walter to us. These are correct, grave and unsmiling performances with little that could be called spontaneous... no amount of repetition has modified the impression of joyless rectitude that these performances communicate.

"Warmth," "humanity," "magic," and "poetry" aren't exactly specific descriptions of what a performance does or doesn't do. Klemperer's Haydn 102 is certainly "unsmiling," though it doesn't neglect the piece's humor (mostly in the finale, which includes such musical jokes as the violins getting stuck on a phrase and apparently unable to remember what comes next); it just takes the serious side of the piece very seriously, and plays up not the comfortable, charming Haydn but the Haydn who constantly surprises his audience. Swift changes of mood, arresting orchestral effects, startling tricks with the development of themes, thrilling moments like the drumroll that ushers in the recapitulation in the first movement: these are all in this symphony, and Klemperer plays them for all their worth, giving the impression that Haydn is not just a predecessor of Beethoven, but the man who did everything Beethoven did, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale.

Klemperer's Haydn 102 was recorded in 1966 (his other Haydn recordings aren't quite on the same level, due either to the sound or to slow tempos). The '60s was when Haydn performance really started to move up a notch, led by conductors like Leonard Bernstein, who performed and recorded dozens of Haydn works. Many people think that Bernstein was at his very best as a Haydn conductor, and it makes sense, because Haydn's music has an odd kinship with the other composer with whom Bernstein is associated -- Mahler. True, Haydn's symphonies are 20-30 minutes rather than 80-90 minutes. But Haydn's music is an unusual and wonderful combination of simplicity and complexity, folkishness and sophistication; his compositional technique was incredibly sophisticated, but the materials he drew on were often those of folk music, dance, and "found" material (the theme of the finale of his last symphony is supposedly based on the cries of London street vendors), lowbrow materials which are then elaborated and developed into something very highbrow. Mahler, with his combination of the learned and the naive, is that kind of composer too, on a bigger scale. (The interplay of lowbrow and highbrow elements is something that sets Haydn apart from Mozart, who wrote great popular tunes but tended to keep them separate from more elevated moments.)

And of course Haydn had the most outrageous sense of humor and gimmickry in music; few other composers would put a fart joke into an otherwise serious movement, or have the orchestra tune up in the middle of a movement (symphony no. 60) or write a piece that doesn't have an ending (the second string quartet of op. 33). That sense of humor -- sometimes genial, sometimes sardonic -- has to be appreciated by a good Haydn performer. It's not "charming" music; it's funny, it's surprising, it constantly keeps you on your toes as Haydn plays with the conventions he himself established, develops themes in odd ways, and changes the mood and spirit of the piece from moment to moment.

There are still many performers who don't appreciate this, and play Haydn like the harmless friendly uncle of music. But there are quite a few recordings of Haydn that really get that he's about more than charm and smiles, and most of those, as I said, are recent. Here are some Haydn recordings I've particularly enjoyed recently:

- Thomas Fey, a German conductor who studied with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, made some CDs for the Haenssler label that were supposed to be the start of a complete cycle of all 104 Haydn symphonies. Like most such cycles, it came to nothing (the only two complete cycles are by Antal Dorati on Decca and Adam Fischer on Brilliant Classics; the Fischer cycle is, overall, the better one), but the CDs he made are pretty fascinating. Fey constantly experiments with sonority and phrasing; he does more tempo-shifting than is usual in Haydn, encourages the timpani and brass to make a hell of a racket, plays the minuets breathlessly fast and the trios unusually slow. His judgement is sometimes questionable, but it's never dull for a second. I would recommend getting his Haydn CDs while you still can (there are two others he made before he stopped recording for the label, but they seem to be out of print).

- Leonard Bernstein's first and best recording of The Creation is roughly recorded and sung, but it's incredibly exciting -- Bernstein makes the most of every descriptive effect, takes fast tempos very fast and slow ones slower than usual, and just generally pulls all the stops out to show that Haydn's nature-painting is, like nature itself, volatile and unpredictable. It's coupled with a Bernstein recording of Haydn's last Mass, the Harmoniemesse,, that is if anything even more exciting, with a really hair-raising "Dona Nobis Pacem" where the chorus seems to be screaming for peace.

- The Dutch conductor Frans Bruggen has made many recordings of Haydn symphonies, including the famous "Paris" and "London" groups and the earlier, experimental symphonies grouped under the heading of "Sturm Und Drang." All his Haydn symphony recordings, 13 discs' worth, are collected in a boxed set. Not all the recordings are great, but the best of them are -- including the best recording I've heard of one of Haydn's very best symphonies, 98 -- and none are less than interesting; all of them take Haydn seriously without playing down his sense of humor, and the period instruments emphasize the rough, gruff quality that Haydn's music can have sometimes -- very much an influence on Beethoven, and very different from Mozart, who always wanted his music to sound as attractive as possible. If you just want the last 12 symphonies, they're available in a pair of 2 for 1 sets.

- With Haydn's string quartets, the recent recordings by Vienna's HIP group the Mosaiques Quartet are all very good, and you can't go wrong with any of Haydn's quartets from the op. 20 set onward. For a real sleeper, though, try the recording of the six op. 33 quartets by the Apponyi Quartet: fast, exciting, emphasizing all the risk and experimentation in the music. Only available from Germany, but worth it.

- John Eliot Gardiner has made fine HIP recordings of Haydn's six late masses, on Philips.

The one genre in which I can't really recommend Haydn is opera. He wrote a lot of them, and most of them have been recorded at one time or another, but none are revived very often. If you hear an individual Haydn aria, you might wonder why, because a lot of them are very inventive and imaginative, like most of Haydn's music. But when you hear or see a Haydn opera in full, it becomes apparent that Haydn didn't have much of a grip on characters; unlike Mozart, who by age 30 could create a musical portrait of a character in a few bars, Haydn lived more than twice as long without ever really creating memorable characters in music. His oratorios have no characters, at least not characters who exist as individuals; Adam and Eve in The Creation are just generically Man and Woman, observing nature and pledging love. Haydn was brilliant at portraying the natural world in music, and in writing abstract, absolute music. But, perhaps because his job as a Court composer didn't bring him into contact with very many people (Haydn himself said that he was so isolated from the world outside Esterhaza that he was "forced to become original" because he didn't know what the musical conventions were anymore), he never really got a handle on portraying human psychology or human interaction. But Haydn gave us so much -- and continues to give to anyone interested in listening -- that this one limitation in his work isn't really relevant; no one cares that Mahler couldn't write an opera, either.

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