Classical Music Consort: Haydn’s London Symphonies reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, January 25, 2008. Trinity College Chapel, Toronto.

1791 is the year a twist of fate freed Haydn from his golden cage of servitude to the Prince of Esterhazy. That year, he began a fully-paid sabbatical and accepted an invitation from the English impresario J.P. Salomon to visit London and conduct his own works from the keyboard. The London visits continued until 1794. They made Haydn rich and famous before he returned to end his days back in Esterhazy.

1791, the year Haydn experienced the freedom that he wrote into the first three of his ”London” symphonies, France was piping airs of liberty into England, and two English Williams, Wordsworth and Blake took up the refrain. Wordsworth wrote of his 1791 visit to France, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” And Blake wrote in his poem of that year, The French Revolution, “the instruments/Of heavenly song sound in the wilds once forbidden.” These lines express some of the feelings we heard in the Classical Music Consort’s performance of Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 93,95 and 96.

These London symphonies are more ambitious and grander in scale than any of Haydn’s previous compositions. They are full of a sweeping optimism, more than a little swagger, and they show Haydn taking many liberties with form. The Symphony No. 95 is the only one Haydn wrote in a minor key. It dispenses with the usual slow introduction, bursts out with a forceful figure in the winds and strings that dominates the entire movement but always trails a gentle answer from the strings, as if to say that force in Haydn’s work is tempered with courtesy.

The Minuet is longer than usual and is slightly macabre (one thinks of Bartok and Weill), sounding notes on the strange and perhaps fugitive feelings of new-found freedom. Kerri McGonigle’s cello solo during the contrasting Trio was very positive, and Ed Reifel’s work on timpani was elegant, particularly from the Finale’s rapid fortissimo section up to the recapitulation and conclusion.

The contrasts of storm and sunshine in the Symphony 96 in G Major were exaggerated by conductor Ashiq Aziz’s deliberate tempos especially as they resounded within the stone enclosure of the Trinity College Chapel. By turns terse and warmhearted, the opening movement sometimes laboured to maintain a balance. The middle movements shone. Aziz produced a nicely shaped wistful effect in the slow movement that suggested the Arcadian grief of Orpheus pining for Eurydice.  He brought the touching minor theme of the middle section to a gorgeous close with horns in delicate counterpoint to the violins. The Minuet was uplifted, and Curtis Foster’s oboe solo during the Trio was delightful. The Ensemble reached a peak of articulate harmony playing the delicate rondo of the Finale.

The Symphony No. 93 in D Major had some highlights. The opening Allegro had a transparent richness.  I liked the minor key development and the sudden pauses that reveal Haydn’s humour. Aziz manages an audacious symmetry between the delicate string quartet that opens the slow movement and the ladylike bassoon fart towards the end.

Soloists on oboe, bassoon, cello and transverse flute as well as the concertmaster Christopher Verrette are among the best in the country.  Generally the performance maintained a high standard despite the occasional squeak of period instruments.

Classical Music Consort founder Ashiq Aziz needs congratulations and support for his undertaking to celebrate Haydn’s Bicentenary with a project that will present the best of Haydn’s Symphonies, Quartets, Trios and Songs between now and October.

Visit www.classicalmusicconsort.org for details.

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