The good: Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society provide excellent performances of some lesser-known Haydn material. The bad: CORO chose to record the performances live, with the attendant concerns this entails. The ugly: Nothing; overall, this is a fine album.
You may know Maestro Christophers better as the leader of the British vocal and period-instrument ensemble The Sixteen, which he founded in 1977. With that group he worked mainly in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. In 2008 he became the Artistic Director of the Boston-based Handel and Haydn Society, which, founded in 1815, is America's second-oldest musical organization (the U.S. Marine Band has it beat by a few years). Think of it: The Handel and Haydn Society began playing Haydn's music just half a dozen years after the composer died, and they have been doing so ever since.
Anyway, the biggest delights in this album are really about all you could ask for from any album: satisfying tunes and beautiful playing. The tunes include an early Haydn symphony we don't hear often: No. 7 n C major, "Le midi" (midday), written in 1761 when the composer had just joined the service of Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy as Vice-Kapellmeister. Then there's a more familiar item, the Symphony No. 83 in G minor, one of the "Paris" symphonies that folks have been recording for ages. But the jewel in the crown is the Violin Concerto in C major, with the Handel and Haydn Society's concertmaster, Aisslinn Nosky. Together, they offer up a real treat for the Haydn fan.
Next is the Violin Concerto in C, which, as I've said, is the highlight of the disc. Ms. Nosky plays with a light but commanding touch, helping the music to dance or shine or float as the need arises. The Adagio is both heavenly and endearing. Meanwhile, the period-instrument orchestra play with a stylish grace; while they aren't as energetic or bouncy as some historical groups, they have a clearheaded idea of how they should play this music, and they do so with a smooth authority.
The album concludes with the familiar Symphony No. 83. Christophers and the orchestra play it with the appropriate gravity afforded a mature work. Yet they maintain a healthy respect for Haydn's noted humor and cheerfulness, which make themselves manifest in the odd "clucking" sounds that gave rise to the symphony's nickname, "The Hen."
Producer Raphael Mouterde and engineer James Donahue recorded the music live over two nights at Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts in January 2015. The live sound is typical of close-up miking. In order to minimize audience noise, the engineer puts the microphones as near to the orchestra as possible. This usually results, as here, in a dynamic and well-detailed sound. However, it also comes with a decrease in hall ambience and realism. Then, too, one is always aware of the audience's presence, particularly during pauses or breaks, and that can be a distraction, no matter how minor. Thankfully, CORO chose to delete any closing applause.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow: