Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 78-81 (CD review)

Ottavio Dantone, Accademia Bizantina. Decca 478 8837 (2-disc set).

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.

Ottavio Dantone
So, back to Dantone and his group. They open the program with a "Sturm and Drang" ("storm and drive" or "storm and stress") symphony, No. 78, the opening movement marked Vivace ("lively," "vivid"). But the thing is, Dantone doesn't really seem to invest the music with much liveliness or vividness. It's mostly rather glum, which is perhaps how the conductor views "Sturm and Drang"; fair enough, but it doesn't do a lot to excite one about the performance.

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:

1 comment:

  1. Decca just announced a new complete set..."All 107 symphonies for the first time on period instruments." Since neither Christopher Hogwood or Frans Bruggen recorded Nos. 78-81, this recording was made especially to plug that gap.


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa