Giovanni Antonini & Kammerorchester Basel - Haydn 2032, Vol. 7: Gli Impresari - MusicWeb International

Giovanni Antonini’s thematically conceived Haydn symphony edition has now reached Volume 7, and Gli Impresari (The Managers) takes its title from the theatre proprietors whom Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy (Haydn’s employer) commissioned to produce plays in his opera houses from the late 1760s. While none of the symphonies included here are among the most performed of Haydn’s canon, they undoubtedly combine to make a logical and attractive programme. Throw in the purely orchestral movements (five choruses are omitted) from Mozart’s incidental music to Thamos, King of Egypt, a play produced in Salzburg by Carl Wahr (one of the managers in question) at around the same time as Haydn was creating the music for one of his Esterházy productions (and which would seemingly be adapted to become the F major symphony here) and you have a programme that coheres nicely in itself and one that also fits seamlessly into the concept of Alpha’s Haydn 2032 series.

Christian Moritz-Bauer’s scholarly essay addresses the intriguing theatrical backgrounds of each of the four works here; in the case of the A major symphony (No 65) the evidence for the links to the particular play involved has only turned up in the last couple of years. But the first item here is the little-known F major Symphony No 67, and what a colourful, entertaining affair it is in Antonini’s hands, all the more earthy with the Basel Orchestra’s use of period instruments. Apparently, a visit to Esterházy in the summer of 1772 by the French ambassador was the impetus behind Carl Wahr’s production there of a German translation of Charles Collé’s comedy La Partie de chasse de Henri IV (Henry IV’s Hunting Party). Moritz-Bauer helpfully identifies a number of connections between Haydn’s music and the action. The first string phrase of the Presto is self-evidently a bugle call (in fact it is the signal Retraite du Soir), and this is confirmed by the technicolour entry of ripe and rustic period horns. This movement is abrupt and to the point. The Adagio is most obviously theatrical—Antonini tastefully exaggerates Haydn’s well-placed pauses from the outset, and the unusual col legno string effects seem to convey the hunting party’s woodland travails as it trudges through the foliage after darkness has fallen. There is a pleasing earthiness to the orchestral sound. The hurdy-gurdy effect in the Minuett is most convincingly realised and fits seamlessly into the theatrical spirit of the piece. Another clue to the incidental music origins of the work emerges in the weird Adagio e cantabile that is shoe-horned into the finale—in another conductor’s hands this would probably have sounded jarring and awkward, but not in Antonini’s, and the unanimity of ensemble that features as the textures fill out is deeply impressive. This then is a very singular, satisfying account of a work that deserves to be better known, a symphony full to the brim with Papa Haydn’s wit, sophistication and unpredictability.

Placed between the two later Haydn works are the four instrumental movements (plus addendum) from Mozart’s music for Thamos; Antonini directs a barnstorming account. opening with a Maestoso-Allegromovement announced by regal, thrilling trumpets and timpani (both absent from the Haydn works). It’s an exciting and restless panel, powerfully delivered by the fine Basel band. The Andante is lovingly shaped by the conductor and features some delightful oboe playing. The material in the brief Allegro–Allegretto (melodrama) section momentarily seems to prefigure later Mozart symphonies, while the concluding fast section is showy and exciting, again featuring brass and timpani which reinforce the feeling of a period version of a white-knuckle ride before the hyper-dramatic Allegro pendant concludes the work with a flourish. Alpha’s superbly differentiated recording comes into its own here.

Christian Moritz-Bauer proudly announces in the note that the riddle of exactly why Haydn’s A major Symphony No 65 projects what H.C. Robbins Landon described as the “whiff of the stage” may well have been solved during his research on behalf of the Basel Haydn Foundation, for whom he has acted as musicological adviser over the last six years. Analysis of its text strongly suggests the lustspiel Der Postzug oder die noblen Passionen (The Post Horses or The Noble Passions) by Cornelius von Ayrenhoff, a comedy of manners premiered in September 1769 which would soon become a box office hit. Suffice to say he goes on to support his hunch by linking a number of episodes in the play to specific points in Haydn’s score. As the title suggests, the hunt is once more central to the action of the play, nor is it ever very far from the surface in the symphony. The Vivace e con spirito first movement begins with three, swishing, incisive chords—not so overtly hunt-oriented as the opening of the F major symphony—but the horns arrive in due course. Rhythms are crisp and spry throughout, and the movement soon reaches full throttle. Antonini, as always, conveys Haydn’s perfect form with elegance and dynamism. Key passages in the Andante and the Menuet seem to reflect events in the play’s narrative; in the latter, for example the odd syncopations seem to point to the fine playing of minuets and dances by a pub band that the heroine’s mother evidently admires. Lovely horn effects and folksy strings light up the Trio. The Prestofinale is dominated by the hunting signal Ton pour la quête (which announces the release of the dogs). If the horns seem a bit forward in the mix—isn’t that the point? This symphony a full-on romp with shooting sticks and riding breeches. It’s a good job I’m prepared to put asideany anti-hunting leanings I may have for the duration of this album.

Moritz-Bauer asserts that the theatrical foundations of the relatively early C major Symphony No 9 lie in a visit to Eisenstadt in 1762 by an Italian comedic troupe, before the building of Esterháza. Its three brief movements perhaps acted as a curtain-raiser before a secular cantata which opened one of their shows. Antonini drives its opening Allegro Molto hard, with its bustling horns and rustic oboes. The central Andante is fuelled by softer woodwinds and unusually for this issue an important role for flutes. The refined Menuetto and Trio finale is again punctuated by horns in the minuet and a more pastoral oboe in the trio. The symphony’s final bars are almost unassuming.

Overall then, Gli Impresari is a worthy addition to this superb series. The spirited orchestral performances and Antonini’s inspired, imaginative direction is matched once more by Alpha’s de-luxe documentation and presentation. The Magnum Photos artist featuring in this volume is the American Peter van Agtmael, and his contemporary portraits are certainly diverting and may even suggest an inadvertent theatricality on the part of his subjects, but beyond that I’m afraid I can’t discern a more specific relevance to the works on this fine disc.

MusicWeb International
05 March 2019