Recording of the Week, Haydn's 'Lamentatione' from Giovanni Antonini
There’s certainly no shortage of significant musical anniversaries in 2018, with the centenaries of Leonard Bernstein’s birth and Claude Debussy’s death both spawning a plethora of new recordings and collections from the archives, but my Recording of the Week is part of an anniversary project which is playing the long game to spectacular effect by looking ahead to 2032: Italian conductor Giovanni Antonini has wisely allowed himself the best part of two decades to celebrate the tercentenary of Joseph Haydn’s birth by recording the composer’s complete symphonies on period instruments in twice-yearly instalments on the Alpha label, and with the release of Volume 6 next week the current tally stands at 19 down and just over 80 to go.
The Haydn2032 project kicked off in 2014, and its slow-burning approach is already paying real dividends, not just in terms of the sheer energy and imagination of the performances themselves but in the illuminating groupings of the works: rather than presenting them in chronological order, Antonini has opted for thematic instalments which break down what he calls Haydn’s ‘kaleidoscope of human emotions’ into vivid primary colours. This sixth volume, ‘Lamentatione’, is built around symphonies with a sacred dimension: the eponymous No. 26 in D minor and the C major ‘Alleluia’ symphony (No. 30), both of which utilise plainchant melodies to startling effect. (Individual movements of the latter symphony may in fact have been used liturgically whilst Haydn was vice-Kapellmeister at Eisenstadt in the early 1760s, and perhaps Haydn’s incorporation of Gregorian chant was a subtle act of rebellion against the workplace hierarchy: the booklet-notes go into fascinating detail about the professional tensions between the composer and his superior, the elderly Kapellmeister Gregorius Werner, who maintained supreme control over the establishment’s sacred choral repertoire whilst delegating all other aspects of court music to his junior).
When I first hit ‘play’ on this album, I wondered for a moment whether I’d selected the wrong instalment of the series: thanks to the incisive, almost bucolic energy of the Kammerorchester Basel strings, the ebullient opening of the Symphony No. 3 in G leaps out of the speakers with such unbridled joie de vivre that the religious and the penitential seem worlds away, but one of the beauties of this collection is the way that Antonini gauges the balance between the sacred and the secular, the contemplative and the extrovert elements in each work. For instance, when the Sturm und Drang angst of the Lamentatione’s opening gives way to the plainsong-inspired second subject, he strips the vibrant colours back to a bleached, vibrato-free timbre and allows the winds to cut through with ecclesiastical gravitas. But Haydn’s wit is never far away – rather than po-faced piety, it’s almost as if Antonini’s band have stumbled into church in high spirits and suddenly remembered it’s time to behave accordingly! There’s real sincerity, though, in the beautiful slow movement which some scholars believe depicts a dialogue between God and an unrepentant sinner – in later discussions with his biographers, Haydn indicated that this idea had inspired an Adagio in one of his symphonies but (perhaps understandably, given his prodigious output) couldn’t for the life of him recall exactly which one!
Those same unrepentant sinners also have a ball in the unbashedly secular Symphony No. 79 from 1784, particularly in the Menuetto and Trio, where courtly grace soon gives way to something distinctly more raucous and earthy – rather as if the party which rapidly spirals out of control in the Act One finale of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (which premiered in 1787) had kicked off three years early. Most of all, though, what makes these performances special is Antonini’s knack for subtly drawing attention to Haydn’s powers of harmonic and rhythmic invention: the development sections of the sonata-form movements truly feel as if the musicians are jointly navigating a scenic route back to the recapitulation and thoroughly appreciating the views along the way, and the unexpected forte chords of the Lamentatione’s finale burst through with an audacity that prefigures the famous ‘Surprise’ in Symphony No. 94. We may have to wait years before Antonini records that work, but in his hands every single work is a ‘Surprise Symphony’, and a delicious one at that.