Sunday 6 July 2008

Festival d'Aix en Provence: BPO/Rattle - Haydn, 6 July 2008

Grand Théâtre de Provence

Haydn – Symphony no.88, in G major, ‘Letter V’
Haydn – Sinfonia concertante in B-flat major, for oboe, bassoon, violin, and violoncello
Haydn – Symphony no.92 in G major, ‘Oxford’

Toru Yasunaga (violin)
Ludwig Quandt (’cello)
Albrecht Meyer (oboe)
Daniele Damiano (bassoon)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

Sir Donald Tovey called him ‘Haydn the Inaccessible’. Not much has changed. A concert consisting of three Haydn symphonic works remains a rarity. Even Haydn’s most popular symphonies, which tend to be those having arbitrarily acquired nicknames, feature less frequently on concert programmes or on recordings than many vastly inferior works. (I shall resist the strong temptation to name any.) As for the rest of his symphonic œuvre, or indeed for considerably more than ninety per cent of his prolific output, enthusiasts esteem whilst the rest of the world ignores. This is some of the most life-affirming, intellectually and emotionally satisfying music ever composed. I find the situation incomprehensible, as, it would seem, do many others; yet we clearly cannot be many enough. Sir Simon Rattle has long been on the side of the angels. In fact, I seem to remember him once calling Haydn his favourite composer, although I am unable to find a source for my apparent recollection. The Berlin Philharmonic made memorable Haydn recordings under Wilhelm Furtwängler (probably still the greatest ever made of the first of this programme’s symphonies) and Herbert von Karajan (including what is for me unquestionably the greatest of The Creation). I am not, however, aware of any arising from Claudio Abbado’s tenure. It is therefore heartening to have Haydn performed and recorded once again from this source. Whilst the string section was smaller than it would have been under Furtwängler or Karajan, working its way down from nine first violins, it did not sound underpowered. One may miss the richer upholstery of the older BPO, but this music can work with fewer strings.

I shall deal with the second work first: the Sinfonia concertante. This is a much misunderstood genre, especially popular in later eighteenth-century Paris, which alone produced more than 150 between 1768 and 1789; it furthered greater independence and indeed virtuosity for all orchestral instruments and their performers. Haydn’s work was written for London in 1792 and certainly fulfilled these criteria, but I cannot account this amongst his stronger works; it pales beside Mozart’s towering contributions. It undoubtedly provided opportunities for all four Berlin Philharmonic soloists to shine, yet I slightly regretted that another symphony – given the wealth of choice – had not taken its place. I tended to think that it would have been better off programmed alongside works by other composers rather than with other (superior) Haydn. There were, nevertheless, promising hints – one could not really do more than hint – of darker undercurrents during the sunny first movement. If occasionally the orchestra sounded a little too micro-managed, Rattle’s heart was clearly in the right place; there are far worse crimes than loving Haydn a little too much. He wisely left the deluxe soloists to themselves during the cadenzas. Toru Yasunaga proved an attentive, if occasionally over-prominent, violinist and Ludwig Quandt an intensely musical and impressively agile ’cellist, whilst Albrecht Meyer and Daniele Damiano provided creamy tone and bubbly delight on the oboe and bassoon. The Andante was charming enough, even if some of the material finds Haydn on auto-pilot. The sense of recitative between violin and orchestra was well caught at the opening of the third movement and thereafter we were treated, alongside stellar solo contributions, to some splendid orchestral contrasts, not least from the second violins.

The meat of the programme, however, was to be found in the two G major symphonies. Rattle has been performing no.88 for many years now; I had heard him do so twice before. The Adagio introduction to the first movement imparted a true sense of occasion, without sounding unduly portentous. That simple joy to be alive which Haydn so often captures was certainly captured as Rattle launched into the Allegro. Rhythms were spruce and articulation was keen, although not in the unduly point-scoring fashion that disfigures so many contemporary performances. Although the tempo was considerably faster than Furtwängler’s, it never sounded rushed; indeed, it simply sounded juste. The development section was full of excitement, as Rattle, the players, and we traced its twists and turns. Crucial to this was the very real sense that every cell, every phrase had meaning. It is worth noting here that he woodwind, not least Mayer and Emmanuel Pahud, was almost unutterably beautiful in tone throughout. The slow movement was flowingly sung. Here again, Mayer shone, as did the superb ’cello section. The violins’ pizzicato was quite something too. I can imagine some listeners finding the expressive dynamic contrasts – including some breathtaking pianissimi from the strings – overdone, but I thought them delightful. The movement’s sterner movements were bracing but never ugly in the regrettable ‘authenticke’ fashion. This movement brought the first – but sadly not the last – bizarre intervention of a key-jangler in the row behind me. Was he expressing his disapproval, after the fashion of early Viennese opposition towards Schoenberg and his music? It is difficult to understand why. Rattle conducted the minuet, marked Allegretto, in the modern fashion, one-to-a-bar. I should have preferred it otherwise, but it did not sound unduly rushed and he maintained some sense of grace. Its trio, however, provided unalloyed delight. It was deliciously rustic, with the various soloists and the conductor all contributing towards the impression of a (very superior) village band. The trio was considerably more relaxed – both in terms of the general tempo, and in its touches of rubato – than the minuet, and benefited greatly from this. I had a few doubts concerning the finale. It was perhaps a little too consciously moulded and can certainly sound far more ‘natural’ – however much art may have to go into the impression – than it did here. Still, there always seemed to be reasons for what Rattle was doing; the pointing was never merely arbitrary. The counterpoint was admirably clear, far more so than the sense of harmonic progression, which I have heard sound far more inevitable than it did here. The final bars presented a fun and never tasteless dash to the finishing line.

The ‘Oxford’ symphony again opened with a mysterious and ravishingly beautiful introduction. What extraordinary music Haydn furnished for his symphonic introductions, preparing the way for the ‘Representation of Chaos’ in his Creation! Then the dam burst, as we hurtled excitingly into the Allegro spirituoso. As throughout these performances, seating the violins to left and right really paid off. And once again, the woodwind sounded simply delectable. Imaginative but never narcissistic inflections made one realise how deeply Rattle had thought about this music and how it might be performed. As with the first movement of no.88, this movement seemed over in the twinkling of an eye, leaving one wanting more. The Adagio cantabile was arguably a little on the fast side for an adagio, but the beautifully warm string opening, the inner parts teeming throughout with meaning, soon made one forget such a cavil. Joined by an equally warm horn and by Mayer’s beguiling oboe, Haydn’s fields sounded truly Elysian. There was vigour in the central section, although once again this never translated into anything coarse or ugly. We heard thereafter a hint of tragedy from the strings, before returning to the original material. Shortly before the conclusion, we were treated to a duet of straightforward perfection between Pahud and Mayer. On this occasion, I am afraid that the minuet was simply taken too fast. It sounded breathless and, whilst it may have boasted a polished vigour, the requisite aristocratic grace was nowhere to be heard. The trio fared better. Its astounding syncopations really told, although it could profitably have been taken at a more measured tempo, to heighten their effect. Rattle’s prolonged pause before the end would doubtless have irritated those inclined to be irritated, but I thought that it heightened expectation in a very winning fashion. The finale, like that to no.88, was once again exciting and full of humour. However, I felt that on this occasion, it was perhaps unduly hard-driven. The tremendous rhythmic drive was quite something in itself, but I am not sure that Haydn should sound turbo-charged. The counterpoint once again registered keenly, yet the movement as a whole wanted grace. I should not want to make too much of this slight disappointment, for on the whole, Rattle and his orchestra served Haydn proud.