Prolific Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote 104 numbered symphonies and a few more that never got a number. Music historians and fans alike didn't call him "the father of the symphony" for nothing. Nevertheless, only the final two dozen or so of his symphonies see much recording time these days, so it's no wonder most of his symphonic output goes unknown to the general public. What's more, I'd wager that even if you own and listen frequently to the complete Haydn symphony set by Antal Dorati, you're still not likely to recognize too many of the earlier works.
I mention this because the disc under review presents four symphonies that musicians don't record very often, Nos. 78-81, the ones Haydn wrote just before the "Paris" symphonies. What's more, Maestro Ottavio Dantone and the period-instrument ensemble Accademia Bizantina offer them in historically informed performances, Nos. 79 and 81 recorded for the first time on period instruments. Which should be all well and good, with one minor glitch: Maestro Dantone and his players don't really enlighten us with anything particularly new or original or sometimes even very stimulating.
Now, here's the thing: the back cover of the CD case proclaims "Under Ottavio Dantone the Ravenna-based Accademia Bizantina have become acclaimed as one of today's most rigorous and colourful period-instrument ensembles." Hyperbole, perhaps? Maybe classical listeners in Europe know them better than we in America, because although the ensemble has been around since 1983, I had never heard of these folks before I got this set.
In any case, that's neither here nor there. The concern I had is that they don't appear nearly as vibrant, alive, flexible, or entertaining as some other period-instrument groups I've heard play Haydn on period instruments; namely, Nic McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque, Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande or the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Frans Bruggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century, Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert, Bruno Weil and Tafelmusik, even Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the old Vienna Concentus Musicus. And then there's Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society, an ensemble that has been doing Haydn practically since Haydn's own day.
Then we get an Adagio ("slowly") that Maestro Dantone takes very literally. It practically pokes along, it's so slow. Worse, the slowness produces little or no compensating beauty. Fortunately, the Minuet and Trio hit a brighter note and sound a bit more as we have come to expect from Haydn, with sweet dance-like rhythms. Then the Finale: Presto brings the symphony to an adequate if not entirely rousing conclusion.
And so it goes throughout the rest of the symphonies. There appears a general lack of spirit and vivacity about the music making. Of the four symphonies in the set, I preferred Dantone's handling of No. 81 best, probably because he seemed more enthusiastic about it than he did the rest, although the rendering still seems to lack a little something in pure adrenaline and style.
But maybe I'm being unfair, having practically grown up with people like Beecham and later Dorati, Eugen Jochum, even Otto Klemperer conducting Haydn in clear, colorful, often cheerful, bright-faced interpretations, not leaving out the aforementioned period-instrument recordings. Dantone and his ensemble don't seem to bring many of those cherished qualities to the table, preferring to remain rather too careful, bland, and aloof.
In other words, I prefer more character and passion in my Haydn.
Producers Dominic Fyfe and Fabio Framba and engineer Roberto Chinellato recorded the symphonies at Teatro Golden, Bagnacavallo, Italy in June, July, and September 2015. For reasons unknown, as this is apparently not a live recording, the miking is very close; so close that the instruments are practically in our face, and as a result the group sounds smaller than it probably is. (The booklet lists sixteen players, but they sound eight or ten because they're all right there in the first row.) Anyway, beyond the closeness of the recording and a consequential lack of much room ambience, the sonics are fine: robust, slightly warm, dynamic, and a tad upper-bass heavy.
One final, minor note: What has happened to attractive album covers these days? Remember when covers often featured eighteenth or nineteenth-century paintings--landscapes or pastoral scenes that complemented the music? This Haydn set has a black-and-white photo of Maestro Dantone appearing to throw his copy of the score in the air, perhaps disgusted with something in the performance. I don't know. I didn't find the photo appealing. Then, on the back of the booklet insert, we get a picture of a little girl holding a teddy bear in her hand, taken from the back of the girl with her looking at the orchestra. For some reason, the photograph made me feel sad, melancholy. I don't know why, and I never figured out the picture's meaning or intent. It's an odd set all the way around.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow: