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McGegan Does It Again In Haydn 57, 67, and 68

David Hurwitz

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A few years ago Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra released a glorious disc containing Haydn symphonies Nos. 88, 101, and 104. Well, they’ve done it again, and their achievement is even more impressive in that this time they have chosen three relatively unknown, middle-period symphonies. None has a nickname, and few get played in modern concerts. I did see Leonard Slatkin–a champion of little-known Haydn–give a superb performance of No. 67, but other than that you’ll be lucky to hear any of these symphonies live.

This doesn’t mean that the music lacks anything in the way of interest. No. 67 is one of Haydn’s most original creations, with a slow movement that features a delicious coda played by the strings “col legno” (with the back of the bow), a trio of the minuet for two muted solo violins–one of them retuned–and a finale with a central “development” that starts as a string trio in an adagio tempo. It’s an amazing piece, and this performance relishes every striking detail.

Symphony No. 57 starts with a surprisingly unsettling slow introduction whose eerie grace notes return, purged of their unease, in the fleet main theme of the finale. No. 68 places the minuet second because the slow movement is probably the longest that Haydn ever wrote. It lasts more than 12 minutes in this performance (14 under Harnoncourt), but it’s so full of variety that the time passes without a thought. The finale is a “variation” rondo whose episodes constitute a veritable concerto for orchestra.

In short, each symphony has something special and characteristic to offer, and each gives McGegan and his ensemble an opportunity to display their individual and corporate musicianship and virtuosity. The strings play with precision and warmth. McGegan clearly knows when to sound “authentic” and when to let his players sing. The solo winds and horns are excellent, ensemble balances invariably what they ought to be to let each work communicate vividly. The live sonics, a touch close and maybe very slightly edgy, actually suit the boldness and panache of the music. Haydn lovers rejoice.

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Reference Recording: These Symphonies: This One

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