Haydn: Symphony No. 88 (Symphony Studies No. 2 of 118)

by Glenn on July 13, 2015

I’m using Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony as a guide to listening to 118 representatives of the symphonic repertoire. This will take a while, of course, to listen to all of them, but I am excited about expanding my range of listening, which tends to be narrowly focused on Mahler’s Anything and Elgar’s First.

I chose Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 as number two out of the 118. I was going to listen to No. 45, “The Farewell,” but it turns out I don’t have a recording of it.

After the musical introduction I realized I had heard this symphony before. A number of times, I think. My memory, probably faulty, is having this on a cassette tape and listening in the car. Whatever orchestra I heard last must have been larger than this one, La Petite Bande, conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken, and recorded on a Virgin Classics release (Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 88–92 | CDVB 7243 5 61567 2 2). I certainly don’t remember the utter clarity that this recording has. This was a wonderful performance. The band is superb. Playful virtuosity.

According to Steinberg, this is one of Haydn’s transitional symphonies. Transitional is not his terminology, but this symphony had a wider audience than just the court of Esterhazy and helped prepare the way for Haydn to do his series of “London” symphonies.

i.

The first movement has a great tune. So much fun.

ii.

The second movement (Largo) is gorgeous. A lovely melody is played and then every time it reappears Haydn includes playful counterpoint that is so surprising and charming. In the gap between repeats of the melody Haydn includes some pretty dramatic chords and tension.

iii.

It’s fascinating to listen to this piece, which I doubt I’ve heard in anything like recent memory, with ears that are nearly 30 years removed from college music studies and 15 years from teaching at Azusa Pacific. What I hear today that I don’t think I would have heard before is the way Haydn plays with the key. It sounds like he’s all over the place. Really inventive and creative. The B section has an extraordinary quality to it. Is that a Central European (Hungarian?) tune/feel? And yet for all his inventiveness and creativity, this piece is so contained. It is a caprese salad to the Beef Bourguignon that is Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, the first symphony I listened to for this exercise.

Also worth noting are the beautiful flourishes the strings and winds have as they bring out Haydn’s melodic ornamentation.

iv.

I love the slight rubato at the start of the tune. The two eighth-note pick-ups are held back just slightly every time we come back to the tune. Doesn’t sound forced or rehearsed.

What is extraordinary is how much contrast and tension Haydn used in this symphony. It just doesn’t seem like it because Gustav Mahler’s music has an in extremis quality to it that makes Haydn sound so tame in comparison.

But, with fresh listening, Haydn has so much to offer. This is worth hearing again (and again). I’m pretty sure I have a copy of Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker playing. It will be fun to compare the two orchestras.

UPDATE:

A trip to the paper store on the way to work was all the time needed to hear Sir Simon Rattle conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker.

What is immediately striking about this recording in comparison to the one I heard last night is how much drier it sounds. La Petite Bande sounds like they are in a very resonant environment and a couple of mics are picking up the sound. Here, perhaps, there are more mics and they are closer in.

The next thing I noticed is how true to the period the Berliner Philharmoniker played. They aren’t playing on period instruments, but stylistically they are in sync. I’m used to them in full excess Mahler mode, and the playing here is so intimate.

I think I prefer the two inner movements as played by the Berlin players. In the second movement, the oboe playing is sublime.

They take a much quicker pace for the third movement and I really enjoyed the Hungarian feel of the B section. Since I’m usually all about Mahler, it is striking to me that Haydn’s inclusion of musical elements that feel rustic and ethnic is a kind of musical foreshadowing. Mahler is not unique in borrowing from here and there to include in his symphonies, it is the extent to which he does this that is so remarkable.

In the end, though, both recordings are wonderful as is the work. Two down, 116 to go.