Il Giardino Armonico’s Haydn Vol. 4: “Distratto” Indeed

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 9

So it begins. The reason most projected Haydn symphony cycles, whether complete or not, start with a bang and then end with a whimper is that the range of the music so vastly exceeds the imagination of its interpreters. This is particularly true of performances based on “historically informed” playing theories that impose the same basic approach on each work, no matter its content or character. Here is a case in point.

Previous issues in this series focused on the so-called “Sturm und Drang” symphonies, works that arguably benefit from the relentless tension and intensity produced by very fast tempos, violent accents, and even a somewhat mechanical treatment of rhythm. In minor keys especially, the resulting excitement permits us to overlook the acerbic timbres that rob the slow movements of their warmth, and the music generally of much of its inherent charm.

The main works on this disc, on the other hand, Symphonies Nos. 60 and 70, reveal Haydn exploring new terrain: of color, texture, and above all, of musical humor. They demand more than, or at least something different from, the “same old, same old” approach heard previously. They don’t get it. These performances are fast and grim. That’s it. The Hungarian excursions in “Il Distratto” count for little. The same symphony’s finale makes the best comic sense if it follows the previous movement without pause. It doesn’t. The famous re-tuning episode in the violins sounds less like a joke than a bit of Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

Similarly, Symphony No. 70, a little-known gem, has seldom sounded so wooden. Its finale, a triple fugue based on nothing at all, ought to be hilarious. Why then does it come across as merely dogged and robotic? The only performance even remotely sympathetic is that of Symphony No. 12, and then only because it contains the least amount of colorful, personal music. In short, it practically plays itself. The bottom line is this: the more Haydn begins to sound like no one else, the less persuasive the performances tend to be.

The filler, a totally forgettable intermezzo at least partially by Cimarosa about a composer/conductor telling his orchestra how his music should be played, is completely forgettable, however neatly sung by baritone Riccardo Novaro. It’s music that requires “face” to make any impression at all, because there’s little in the notes themselves. Here, the face reveals nothing more than a blank stare. So the question remains: will conductor Antonini and Co. realize that it’s their job to accommodate their style to Haydn, and not the other way around? The jury is still out, but it’s not looking good.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Symphonies Nos. 60 and 70: Blum (Vanguard)

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