Lovers of music today are fortunate to have the opportunity to explore in depth the symphonies of Joseph Haydn (1732 --1809). Beginning with Antal Dorati's recordings, listeners have had a choice in versions for virtually all Haydn's 104 symphonies. Among the best ways to explore Haydn is through the budget-priced complilation of symphonies on Naxos. Besides price, the Naxos set offers the opportunity to explore Haydn one CD (three symphonies) at a time. The compilation uses a variety of conductors and chamber ensembles. Thus, this set also offers the chance to hear how different conductors and groups approach Haydn.
The CD under review features Bela Drahos conducting the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia, Hungary. It includes three well-performed early symphonies, nos. 27,28, and 31 the "Hornsignal" together with good liner notes. The "Hornsignal" in particular is an ambitious work that will reward frequent hearing.
The symphony no. 27 in G major is the earliest work on this CD, dating from 1760. It is short and consists of but three movements. The first movement, allegro molto, is notable because it shows Haydn experimenting with sonata form. The opening exposition consists of two primary themes and, as becomes customary, is played with a repeat. This is followed by a short development section which is also repeated, proceeded by a repeat of the exposition. The movement concludes with a recapitulation which is not repeated. The second movement is marked andante:siciliano. Interestingly, this is not a slow movement but rather moves at a flowing graceful pace featuring strings over a plucked figure. I enjoyed listening for the continuo accompanyment in this movement. The finale, marked presto, opens with four loud chords followed by a quiet answer and a lively theme, including a singing scale figure. There is a short, contrasting middle section. This is a notable early symphonic effort.
Symphony no. 28 in A major was composed five years later in 1765. (The numberings of Haydn's symphonies obviously are imprecise.) It is in four movements and is also a short work. The opening movement, allegro di molto, begins with a light, dancelike theme followed by a loud answer. The development section works up to a loud minor-key passage featuring a solo for the horn followed by passages for the solo oboe towards the end of the movement. Haydn was making good use of winds by this time in his symphonic career. The second movement, poco adagio, is a slow movement, but modestly paced. It features a walking theme in the low strings with contrasting statements in the higher strings. The minuet includes an opening theme with a stuttering, shaky quality. The trio is in the minor-key and consists of a haunting, short theme that ends mid-air. The finale, presto assai, is a dancelike theme which includes solos for the horn and which features passages in contrary motion. The main theme is stated by the higher strings moving up with an accompaniment figure in the lower strings moving down.
The final work on this CD, the symphony no. 31 in D major, "Hornsignal" also dates from 1765. This is a lengthy work, over 30 minutes, exceeding the length of many of Haydn's late symphonies. It is also highly inventive, featuring extended solo work for many instruments, a variety of movements, and an underlying unity through the use of horn calls. The work is scored for a large orcherstra which includes four horns (rather than the usual two).
The first movement, allegro, opens with a flourishing horn fanfare which is repeated at the beginning of the development and at the conclusion of the work. The movement also features a prominent solo for the flute together with a supple, lyrical theme in the strings. The second movement, adagio, is in a two-part form, each of which is gently rocking, and features extensive solo passages for the violin, flute, and horns (in pairs) over a backdrop of plucked strings. The minuet features a stately theme with horns tootling in the background. The trio gives the oboes the lead with the horns in response. The remarkable fourth movement, moderato molto/presto is a theme and variations with solos for many instruments. The theme is stated deliberately and quietly in the strings. The variations stay close to the theme but present it in different voices. Thus, the first variation features the oboe and horn, the second the cello, the third the flute, together with a stroking figure in the strings, the fourth a choir consisting of the four horns, the fifth a solo violin, the sixth the orchestra with a great deal of wind coloration, the seventh a string bass (highly unusual and effective). There is a short minor-key interlude followed by a quick conclusion ending with another horn fanfare. This is an excellent, too-little known symphony!
This CD offers an opportunity to explore the early Haydn. It will probably have most appeal to listeners who know Haydn's latter symphonic masterworks and who have an urge to experience the development of this great composer.