Haydn Symphonies

Haydn Symphonies

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Talk about classical canon: conductors and record companies never seem to tire of the Haydn Symphonies. Not that I object—there’s plenty of material to delve into. Haydn wrote 104 of them, after all. Some of the symphonies include some incredibly innovative moments; the Minuet movement of No. 8 features a long solo for double bass – pretty rare in 1761!. Oh, and let’s not forget that Haydn practically invented the format of symphonic movements that became standard in the late Classical and early Romantic periods.

Given all that, it’s no surprise that I found a few new recordings to talk about. Yet one of them is a bit of a surprise. The label Hänssler Classic had committed to releasing a series called The Complete Haydn Symphonies, with period specialist Thomas Fey conducting the Heidelberg Symphony. They’d put out 22 volumes when Fey suffered a severe brain injury in an accident. That looked like the end of his Haydn project.

Enter Benjamin Spillner. This conductor completed the half-finished Vol. 23 a couple of years ago, and now has gifted us with Vol. 24, resplendent with Symphonies Nos. 63, 38, 37, and 9. And he’s filling Fey’s big boot-prints honorably. While Fey approached this music convinced of Haydn’s radicalism and therefore presenting controversial tempos and unexpected ornamentation, Spillner is just as bold in his own way.

Here’s the opening Allegro of Symphony No. 63 in C major to give you a taste of Spillner’s vivid interpretation, not to mention the orchestra’s sensitivity and accuracy to his detailed demands. Anyone who thinks of Haydn as a boring Mozart needs to go get schooled in Heidelberg.


Some may find his Andante in Symphony No. 37 to be a bit slow, but I think it’s taking the marking (literally “going,” often translated as “walking”) to mean a strolling tempo as well as attitude. This is an unconcerned playing that just lays out Haydn’s harmonic twist and turns without over-intensifying them. The notes speak for themselves.


Also on Hänssler, as part of their Profil collection, is a brand new recording of Haydn’s “Wallerstein” Symphonies. Haydn was commissioned to write Nos. 90-92 for Prince Kraft Ernst, leader of the German principality of Oettigen-Wallerstein. The prince happened to be an accomplished musician with his own orchestra to lead, and he wanted exclusive rights to some of Papa Haydn’s symphonies.

This album features the Bavarian Chamber Orchestra Bad Brückenau, conducted by Johannes Moesus. Much less experimental than Spillner’s work, Moesus’ recording is more traditional and stately. Princely, if you will. The regal conductor who commissioned these pieces would have been very lucky to hear them played with the kind of delicate beauty Moesus draws from the orchestra in the Adagio from Symphony No. 91:


But it’s not all about the slow passages. When called to, this fine group of players applies its virtuosity with an ease befitting the Classical period. Witness the Finale, marked Allegro assai, of the 90th symphony:


Germany is not the only country contributing to the Haydn archives this year. The Exton arm of Octavia Records has released three more volumes in its Haydn Symphony series with Norichika Iimori conducting the Japan Century Symphony Orchestra.

Volume 6 features Symphonies No. 39, No. 61, and No. 73 “La Chasse”; Volume 7 includes No. 37, No. 78, No. 16, and No. 100 “Military”; and on Volume 8 you’ll find No. 60 “Il distratto” and No. 54. Some of these are available on Spotify.

In the third-movement Minuet from Symphony No. 100, you can immediately hear how Iimori’s work differs from the recordings on Haenssler: Japan Century Symphony Orchestra sounds to be at full force, rather than reduced to a chamber-sized ensemble. Therefore, Iimori focuses more on the larger ideas than on the exquisite details. It’s a mid-20th-century approach to Haydn’s music, one that seems a bit quaint these days of period performance-practice scholarship.

Still, the Japan Century Symphony has a rich, powerful timbre (I’m now curious to hear them play Mahler or Bruckner), and Iimori’s musical decisions are intelligent if not cutting-edge. The opening Allegro assai from Symphony No. 39 demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of Haydn’s use of harmony as drama:

Speaking of interpretations from an earlier era: In his new recording on Chandos, Ivan Ilić considers Symphonies Nos. 92, 75, and 44 from a different perspective – looking down on a keyboard.

He is playing transcriptions of the Haydn symphonies by Carl David Stegmann (1751-1826). The obsession with transcribing orchestral music for keyboard took hold when the modern piano – 88 keys, a metal frame, sustain and damping pedals – came into European households. The instrument’s huge and hugely controllable sound made pianists feel like they had a whole orchestra under their fingers. The most famous example is Liszt’s spectacular versions of the Beethoven symphonies for two hands (if those two hands happen to belong to a pianistic genius like Liszt).

While Stegmann’s task might not have been quite as daunting, his transcriptions are a fascinating experiment in picking apart complex music and deciding what’s most essential about it.

Ilić (pronounced EE-litch) is a Serbian-American pianist with a track record of tackling the arcane and the difficult. He’s got both at once to contend with here, both technically and in terms of interpretation. I mean, are these pieces still Haydn. Haydn wrote all the notes (those that survived Stegmann’s culling). But the use of a modern concert grand automatically takes the works out of the 18thcentury and into the 19th.

I’d say Ilić makes the right choice by not trying to make these pieces in any way “authentic” to what Haydn intended. Instead, he leans the balance toward the later composer. In Ilić’s hands, these symphonies have truly become Romantic pieces, with 19th-century power and resonance.

Odd as they are, one of the joys of these transcriptions is the way they lay bare Haydn’s mastery of the earlier techniques of counterpoint considered old-fashioned in his own day. In this Presto (with a slow introduction marked Grave) from Symphony No. 75, Ilić seems aware of his responsibility: He keeps the contrapuntal lines clear, untangling their interplay like he’s analyzing a game of chess.

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