Before Joseph Haydn wrote his first symphony, he had already made a reputation for himself as a composer with a string of harpsichord sonatas, harpsichord and organ concertos, various divertimenti and sacred music for the voice; relatively speaking, he came quite late to the symphony. Nevertheless, he was to complete more than a hundred works in this genre during the 36 years which lay between his first symphony and his great „London" Symphony. Whereas his early symphonies, which still contain elements of the divertimento and the suite, are already distinguished by a remarkable stylistic security, his late works rank among the high points of the symphonic form in their Classical perfection.
The earliest work on this recording, the Symphony in D, Hob. I.22, was composed in 1764, three years after Haydn‘s appointment as second Kapellmeister to Prince Paul Anton Eszterházy in Eisenstadt (after his death in 1762, his brother Nikolaus became Haydn‘s employer). It is considered to be probably the most original symphony Haydn had written at the time. The work is structured along the lines of the church sonata, and is characterized by the ease of the motivic invention, cheerfulness and partly also by the musical humour so typical of its composer. Here, Haydn already provides some of the first examples of the art of surprise, which he later made so famous. An unusual feature in the orchestral writing for this symphony, which is nicknamed „The Philosopher", is the use of the cor anglais, which is included here for the first time in a symphony by Haydn and which gives the texture an interesting character.
The Symphony in E minor, Hob.I:44 dating from around 1771 is one of Haydn‘s so-called Sturm-und-Drang symphonies, which also include his Hob. I:26, 42, 43, 46-50, 58 and 59. „Sturm und Drang" was a literary youth movement in Germany; the term was derived from the subtitle of a dramatic work by Maximilian Klinger and includes for instance works such as Götz von Berlichingen and Werther by the young Goethe. „Sturm and Drang" is not defined as a specific genre in music, even though some especially dramatic and emotional compositions from this period (which, by the way, preceded the literary works) have been thus labelled. These works are generally characterized by extreme dynamic contrasts, dramatic orchestral tremolos in operatic fashion, syncopations, large intervals and, not but not least, by the use of minor keys. The Symphony No. 44 bears the apocryphal title „Mourning" Symphony, not only because of its sinister character, but also because Haydn expressed the wish for it to be played at his funeral. The first movement of this passionate work with its „chiselled" unisono theme and contrasting motives is developed contrapuntally in a brilliant manner. The Haydn scholar, H.C. Robbins Landon, suspects the influence of Christoph Willibald Gluck in this work. The slow movement, which is positioned third in the symphony, an intense Adagio, is more like a traditional Andante, in which the strings are effectively contrasted with the entrances of the wind instruments. The monothematic Finale with its two-bar leading motive is especially exciting. The darkly tinted Minuet has not retained any of the traditional dance character of this movement. In its expressive idiom, it has become part of the entire dramatic concept of this symphony.
The Symphony in A, Hob I:64 is part of a string of about 20 symphonies written by Haydn in Eszterháza between 1773 and 1781, and which are rarely performed nowadays. They lurked, as it were, somewhere in the shadows between the three significant symphonies dating from 1772 (Hob. I:45-47) and the later Paris Symphonies (Hob. I: 82-87). Several of these works originated from music Haydn wrote for opera or theatre, i.e. in connection with stage works performed in Eszterháza, for which he supplied the music. What distinguishes them from the works immediately preceding them, in which Haydn had proved himself to be a radically experimental composer, is the return to a rather more conventional style of composition, albeit that Haydn still has a fair number of surprises in store for the listener in these works. As far as the Symphony No. 64 (with the apocryphal title „Tempora mutantur") is concerned, there is no specific theatrical reason behind the work, although H.C. Robbins Landon has also confirmed that this originates from the stage. The beginning of the first movement is especially conspicuous in this work, which - as in quite a few of Haydn's symphonies dating from this period - begins piano, but surprises the listener straight away after two bars with two forte bars. Then the motif from the beginning is repeated piano, and is followed by the first forte bar, but this time played piano, thereupon repeated again forte. The listener is not able to adjust to a certain model and is forced to prepare himself for continual surprises during the course of the movement. Haydn experimented with the variation form in quite a few slow movements in this group of works; however, that was not the case in this symphony. This movement, which in accordance with the form consists of three parts, includes a Largo whose themes are hard to define, which is grotesquely interrupted by fortissimo bars at the end. This peculiar, un-Classical movement fostered the hypothesis that it was the missing stage music composed by Haydn for Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet, which was given its première in 1773/74 in Pressburg. According to this theory, the „Tempora mutantur" motto from this Symphony would refer to Hamlet's words „The time is out of joint". Whereas the minuets belonging to the symphonies dating from around 1770 are still characterized by strong emotions, Haydn returns in most of the third movements belonging to this group of works, as for example in this Symphony in A, to a more gently pleasing type of minuet. The lively Presto-Finale, which is interrupted by dramatic outbursts and crowned with a fortissimo ending, shows itself to be a mixture of a sonata movement and a rondo.