Amid Flourish Of Horns, Maestro Extends Chase Of Haydn’s Symphonies


Il Giardino Armonico during a recording session (Photo by Federico Emmi)

Haydn 2032, Vol. 13—Hornsignal. Haydn: Symphonies No. 31 in D Major, No. 59 in A Major, and No. 48 in C Major; Telemann: Concerto for Recorder, Horn, and Continuo. Il Giardino Armonico, conducted by Giovanni Antonini. Alpha Classics (Alpha 692). Total time: 87:01.

DIGITAL REVIEW — There are large-scale recording projects, and then there’s a commitment to record all 107 of Haydn’s symphonies by the composer’s 300th birthday in 2032. No wonder conductor Giovanni Antonini is already on Volume 13 of this behemoth; he has only nine more years to complete the job.

Haydn2032, on the Alpha Classics label, includes some recordings by Antonini with the Basel Chamber Orchestra and some, like this one, with the period-instrument ensemble Il Giardino Armonico. The latter ensemble is his own band, which he founded in 1989. Leader and instrumentalists work together instinctively..

Rather than following chronology for this collection, Antonini has chosen to group the symphonies chromatically. Volume 13 is called Hornsignal, a nod to the nickname of Haydn’s Symphony No. 31 in D major, Mit dem Hornsignal, the first symphony on the disc. Indeed, all the works in this volume have notable horn parts with lots of leapt fourths and fifths. For this recording, at least, Il Giardino Armonico boasts four natural horns, the extraordinary number that Haydn called for in the score.

Each volume also features an essay by a different musicologist. In his contribution to Volume 13, Christian Moritz-Bauer reveals historical information essential to the theme: Haydn had a practically unlimited supply of horn players in his orchestra at Esterhazy, but no full-time trumpeters, so he often found himself using the horns to cover what would normally be trumpet parts in standard orchestration.

Symphony No. 31 opens with the raw, complex hooting of natural horns. The Giardino strings are ferocious but completely in control. Antonini relentlessly seeks out microscopic details of phrasing, which his players pull off at lightning speed without ever sounding like they’re trying to play fast. The booklet includes a short essay by Antonini citing various historical sources on how playing fast is more about character and warmth than about speed. He then successfully demonstrates that theory with his orchestra.

The second movement, an Adagio in 3/4 time, features the expressive playing of first-chair violin and viola players. Antonini allows a languidness in the rhythm that never swells into inappropriately Romantic levels of rubato — just enough room to breathe. The pizzicato strings and chordal horn section keep the rhythmic framework tight. After a surprisingly sprightly Minuet, the theme-and-variations Finale is the definition of courtly elegance.

Symphony No. 59 in A major is nicknamed the Feuersinfonie. It’s the beginning of the first theme — runs of fast, spiccato notes in the strings — that lights the piece aflame. Again, the energy is intense but never rushed. In the second movement, Antonini makes a gentle stroll of the walking bassline under a lyrical melody, contrasting it with florid, unison passages. The 59th Symphony has an almost militaristic Minuet, an example of Haydn’s cockeyed sense of humor, which the ensemble emphasizes with punctuated beats that make one long to march in triple time. The Trio, in a more fluid, ethereal style, floats by like it’s from another world. Marked Allegro assai, the raucous final movement must have shaken the chandeliers in the Esterhazy estate if it was played like this.

Nicknamed Maria Theresia after the work was erroneously believed to have been composed for the Holy Roman Empress of that name, Haydn’s Symphony No. 48 in C major is also included under the Hornsignal theme. This one goes way beyond simple leaps from tonic to dominant, however: The first theme of the exposition in the opening Allegro is given to the horns, which the four Giardino players deliver with absolute clarity on their valveless instruments.

Giovanni Antonini

The closing Allegro stands out for its lack of melodic material: The “themes” are more about their rhythmic and harmonic structure than their tunes. They’re also unforgiving for the violinists, who are saddled with long passages of 16th notes one might expect to find in Vivaldi or Smetana’s overture to The Bartered Bride. Antonini and company keep at it gamely, but it’s not the most interesting movement Haydn ever wrote.

Each volume of Haydn2032 also includes one work by another composer. For Volume 13, the guest is Telemann, whose Concerto for Recorder, Horn, and Continuo, TVW 42:F14, closes the single disc. Johannes Hinterholzer takes the horn solo, while Antonini himself plays recorder. It’s a charming work, written at a time when the genres of concerto and trio sonata were still intertwined.

Antonini and the continuo (Paolo Beschi, cello, and Riccardo Doni, harpsichord) meander through the second movement alone, a stark textural change from the first and last movements with horn. Hinterholzer maintains a light, accurate touch on an instrument invented to call a hunting party together, not weave melodies. Given Antonini’s conducting style, his attention to detail on the recorder is not surprising.

If my count is correct — most volumes of Haydn2032 include three symphonies, but some have four — Antonini has recorded 38 symphonies so far. So, he’s about a third of the way done. He may have a long way to go, but it’s a project worth completing. His Haydn recordings lay bare the ingenious inner workings of the creations that defined the genre of symphony.

For information on all the recordings in the Haydn2032 collection, go here.