This past February Philharmonia Baroque Productions, the recording label of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and its Music Director Nicholas McGegan, released its second recording of the symphonies of Joseph Haydn. Like the first CD, this new one has three symphonies. However, while I called the first release “international” because one of the symphonies, Hoboken I/88 in G major, was composed for performance in Paris, while the other two, Hoboken I/101 (“Clock”) Hoboken I/104 (“London”), both in D major, were composed for performance in London, all three of the symphonies on the new release were composed as part of Haydn’s service to the Hungarian Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy. Furthermore, while Haydn’s service to the Esterházy family lasted from 1761 to 1790, all three symphonies were composed in a relatively short period of time, probably between 1774 and 1776.
I find it a bit of a pity that Hoboken I/94 in G major should have been singled out as the “Surprise” symphony. While there is no denying the fortissimo “surprise” in the second (Andante) movement, Haydn’s talent for surprising his listeners goes back at least to the days of his service to Prince Nikolaus and probably goes back further. Each of the three symphonies on this new recording abounds with surprises to such an extent that one must assume that Haydn’s patron not only enjoyed them but came to expect them on a regular basis. Yet, like any good standup comedian, Haydn always seemed to know how to take a seemingly innocuous situation and make it stand on its head.
All three of these symphonies were recorded at subscription concerts given by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in Berkeley. I was fortunate enough to attend the San Francisco performance of two of them, Hoboken I/57 in D major and Hoboken I/67 in F major. The third symphony on this recording is Hoboken I/68 in B-flat major. It is hard to imagine a conductor better than McGegan for these three symphonies that sparkle with so much wit and good humor. Watching McGegan tease out all of Haydn’s clever turns is as much fun as listening to the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra produce the results. Nevertheless, these recordings have been made with such crisp clarity that the attentive listener will have no trouble enjoying every one of the fruits of Haydn’s wit.
Indeed, there is a whole taxonomy of those fruits to be enjoyed on this particular recording. There are the games that Haydn plays with sudden shifts in dynamics (as was the case with the device that earned the label “Surprise”). However, just as interesting is the way he can introduce a theme that is so innocuous that one things he stole it from a nursery rhyme; but then he starts to play his tricks with it, sometimes drawing on classical traditions of embellishment and sometimes just pulling the rug out from under the listener to reveal that the tune is not as innocent as all that. Finally, there are the games he plays with instrumentation, bass notes that sound almost flat-footed while the rest of the ensemble is dancing delicately, or themes that bounce like a Ping-Pong ball from one instrument to another.
Indeed, the stunts that Haydn pulls come with such rapidity and such abundance that the attentive ear can barely keep up with them. This is music that can only be really enjoyed after several listenings (after which further listening may yet turn up more surprises). This is a recording that makes an excellent case for not only Haydn’s mastery of his art but also the abundance of his talent to amuse.