May 31 was the 200th anniversary of Franz Joseph Haydn’s death in 1809 at the age of 77. He was so revered that an honor guard was posted outside of his Vienna residence during his last days. The great good news is that this commemoration has generated a flood of Haydn releases and re-releases of his music that leaves us now with more than 90 percent of his work available on CD.
I love Haydn. If I had to be left with only one composer in my life, it would be he — not because he is the greatest, although he is great, but because of the measured quality of humanity in his music. He is the most companionable composer. Haydn’s is not the preternatural world of Mozart, nor is it the one of ever-present yearning for the prelapsarian that is Schubert’s. There is a steadiness in Haydn’s music, a sense of normalcy. At the same time, it is filled with wonder at what is — at its goodness. In other words, there is something regular about Haydn that makes his music accessible in an almost daily way, without overwhelming us. It is easier to live with than, say, Beethoven, who so often storms the heavens. The whole panoply of life is there but in scale, humanely so, without grotesque exaggeration — which is exactly what was lost with Romanticism.
While listening to Haydn, I feel gratitude, which is hardly strange, as it is gratitude that his work expresses. In the April 2009 Gramophone, Geraint Lewis wrote, “When he was berated late in life for the cheerful tone of his religious music, Haydn simply said that every time he thought of God his heart leapt for joy.” My heart leaps for joy when I hear him. Joy begets joy. As a result, I never tire of his music. I am always refreshed by it.
This effect exactly fits Haydn’s intention. Here is how he saw the purpose of his life’s labor, as expressed in 1802:
Often, when struggling against obstacles of every sort which oppose my labors: often, when the powers of mind and body weakened, and it was difficult to continue the course I had entered on; — a secret voice whispered to me: “there are so few happy and contented peoples here below; grief and sorrow are always their lot; perhaps your labors will once be a source from which the care-worn, or the man burdened with affairs, can derive a few moments rest and refreshment.” This was indeed a powerful motive to press onwards, and this is why I now look back with cheerful satisfaction on the labors expended on this art, to which I have devoted so many long years of uninterrupted effort and exertion.
One of the greatest composers who ever lived wanted to give us but “a few moments of rest and refreshment.” (Can you imagine a Romantic composer, lost in self-exaltation, expressing himself in this way?) Well, he succeeded, incomparably. One reviewer said something with which I entirely agree: “It is impossible to have too much Haydn in your life.” Luckily, there is a lot of Haydn with which to fill your life. He gave us as inexhaustible a source of delight as we are liable to come by this side of paradise.
Haydn also had a marvelous sense of humor, as can be heard in his music. This was exhibited in his behavior as well. He loved pranks; from The Book of Musical Anecdotes:
The Austrian composer Dittersdorf and Haydn were friends as young men. One night while roaming the streets they stopped outside a common beer hall in which the musicians, half drunk and half asleep, were fiddling away miserably at a Haydn minuet . . . . Entering the taproom, Haydn sat down beside the leader and asked casually, “Whose minuet?” The man snapped, “Haydn’s.” Haydn moved in front of him and, feigning anger, declared: “That’s a stinking minuet.” “Says who?” demanded the fiddler, jumping out of his seat with rage. The other musicians rallied round him and were poised to smash their instruments over Haydn’s head but Dittersdorf, a big fellow, shielded Haydn with his arm and pushed him out of the door.
As is well known, this prolific genius pioneered the modern symphony, virtually created the form of the string quartet, and developed the piano sonata and sonata-allegro form to new heights. As the French painter Jean Ingres exclaimed: “Whoever studies music, let his daily bread be Haydn . . . the first who created everything, discovered everything, taught everything to the rest!”
He wrote masterpieces in almost every genre — chamber, symphonic, choral, operatic, and liturgical. Depending on how you count them, there are up to 108 symphonies, some 70 string quartets, 52 piano sonatas, 31 piano trios, 126 baryton trios, 24 violin sonatas, 435 songs, 14 Masses, 14 operas, 4 oratorios, and many concertos and divertimentos. Where, then, to start?
The Brilliant Classics 150-CD box (BRL-CD-93782) is a staggering gift. “Bargain” is hardly an adequate description of what is available here for $1 per CD or less (from various internet sites; start at Amazon). One of the most impressive things about it is that it is not complete, nor is it advertised as such. Included here are all the symphonies, conducted by Adam Fischer, with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, using modern instruments. The symphonies were recorded over 14 years (1987-2001) by Nimbus in the Haydnsaal of the Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt, a place to which I have made pilgrimage.
I remember trashing one of the first Nimbus releases because the recorded sound was so boomy and recessive that the efforts of the orchestra were obscured. I therefore paid no attention to subsequent releases. Now I know what I have been missing. Both the orchestra and the recording engineers got much better as the project proceeded. Aside from the late London Symphonies (for which one can go to the Colin Davis recordings on budget Phillips Duos), these rambunctious performances are a romp, with a kind of exuberant rusticity, grit, and vivacity that are irresistible. By themselves, they are worth the price of purchase. (In case you are only interested in the symphonies, I have to tell you that, in Great Britain, Nimbus has issued an eight-disc collection of them in MP3 format for the unbelievable price of only £25.)
But then there are the quartets — not complete, alas, as the Buchberger Quartet, for some mysterious reason, omitted Opp. 50 (4-6), 54, and 76 (4-6). The others are marvelously well-performed by this original instrument ensemble (though I will not give up my modern instrument performances). This adds to the allure of the Brilliant set.
Next, in my estimation, come the complete piano trios, performed by another capable period instrument group, the Van Swieten Trio. I am not a fan of the clangy, twangy sound of piano fortes — one is used here — and deeply love the modern instrument performances by the great Beaux Arts Trio on Phillips, but it does not take long to be captured by the musicality and vivacity of this group.
The same goes for the 52 piano sonatas, here performed by five different pianists on various forte pianos. I was surprised by how quickly my ears and tastes adjusted to the piano forte sound. After all, these are the instruments on which most of these works were most likely premiered.
I confess that I am still working my way through the huge number of songs, which are quite an attractive surprise. Even more surprising are the operas. The set also contains four of Haydn’s operas, including two of his finest, composed for his patron Prince Esterházy: La Fedeltà Premiata, composed in 1780, and L’infedeltà Delusa, written in 1773. Like most people, I have not paid much attention to Haydn in this area — neither have record companies. Mozart eclipsed him in this genre. These excellent recordings show how very good he actually was. The vocal writing is a treat. These recordings are a major asset of this set but, alas, no libretti are provided on the CD-ROM.
I would say that the renditions of the great oratorios and the Masses are fine for an introduction, but they are somewhat dated Vox productions, and much better is available elsewhere. Only two of the final six Masses are here anyway and, since they are all masterpieces of liturgical music, one should get them all.
The Brilliant edition also offers the first recordings of all 126 baryton trios. These, I think, are only for the Haydn completist. They were written for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Haydn’s patron, who played the baryton, a bowed stringed instrument with sympathetic strings that could also be plucked. While he was indubitably one of the music world’s greatest patrons, Prince Nikolaus, on the evidence provided here, had limited performance abilities. I never thought that Haydn had written a boring bar of music until I sampled some of these trios. Others demonstrate his genius with limited means.
In any case, my overall verdict is that this Brilliant Haydn Edition, while perhaps not as overwhelming a bargain as the Brilliant Bach set, is still an inestimable treasure. I am far richer for it.
What are the alternatives? Naxos offers separate boxes of the complete recordings of the symphonies, the quartets, the piano sonatas, and the oratorios. These are also bargains, if not as dirt cheap as the Brilliant discs.
In the symphonies, Naxos uses seven different orchestras: the Capella Istropolitana (Bratislava) under Barry Wordsworth; the Cologne Chamber Orchestra under Helmut Müller-Brühl; the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia under Béla Drahos; the Northern Chamber Orchestra under Nicholas Ward; the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä under Patrick Gallois; the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Béla Drahos; and the Toronto Chamber Orchestra under Kevin Mallon. You will get smooth, soothing Haydn from Cologne; elegant, charming, and vivacious Haydn from Ward; and very well articulated and lively Haydn from Drahos.
Naxos does not follow the symphonies in chronological order, as does Brilliant, but rather mixes the programs. I find both the Naxos and Brilliant traversals very strong. You may be safely decided depending on whether you want one orchestra for the whole series and whether you wish to have the symphonies ordered chronologically — or not. Either way you will be very happy. The Naxos box contains 34 CDs (8.503400).
You can also be assured of top quality in the Naxos boxes of string quartets, performed by the estimable Kodaly Quartet, using modern instruments (25 CDs, 8.502400), and of the complete piano sonatas, with sterling renditions performed on a modern grand piano by Jeno Jando (10 CDs, 8.501042). Naxos also has a superb box of the complete concertos (6 CDs, 8.506019). I find them generally better done than the performances on Brilliant.
Naxos offers Haydn’s three oratorios on 7 CDs (8.507008). The performance of The Creation is excellent; The Seasons only a bit less so; and, the biggest surprise for me, The Return of Tobias, a huge three-hour work from 1775, receives a splendid treatment. The gorgeous coloratura writing and other choral glories in Tobias make this a real find, especially in this exciting performance. Yes, a three-hour oratorio is a bit much, but this is what the CD player is for.
In short, you can buy these Naxos boxes with complete confidence in their quality and value.
I cannot leave you without mentioning what is one of the single most exciting Haydn recordings I have ever encountered. Haydn originally wrote his masterpiece, The Creation, to an English libretto, which was lost. During the two years of its composition, Haydn said, “Every day I fell on my knees and asked God for the strength to complete it.” A reconstruction of the original English is used in a new recording by Chetham’s Chamber Choir, and the Gabrieli Consort and Players, under Paul McCreesh, on the Archiv label (477 7361). This is an original instrument performance, using the full-size forces that were employed at the 1799 premiere of this work.
The effect is stunning. If you have never shivered at the harmonically daring Representation of Chaos in the orchestral introduction, you will here. If you can listen to “And there was light,” surely one of the most sublime and electrifying moments in all of music, without tears running down your checks, overwhelmed at the glory and goodness of the Creator, then you never will. The audience at the Vienna premiere went wild, picked Haydn up in his chair and paraded him around the concert hall. The dear man kept throwing his arms upward, shouting: “It was from Him; it was from Him!”
Indeed it was, and so much more. As Haydn wrote on his manuscript, “Laus Deo!”