Outside his big oratorios, Haydn’s fate in most concert menus is to serve as the starter or palate cleanser, not the main course. That wasn’t the case last weekend, the 200th anniversary of his death, though you still had to travel outside London’s major venues to find a British orchestra focusing on this most inventive and reliable of composers.
One explanation for his quiet profile may be found in the modest turnout for the Manchester Camerata’s Bridgewater Hall concert: orchestral Haydn doesn’t pull the crowds. That’s certainly not the music’s fault: Douglas Boyd’s programme dipped into symphonies early, middle, and late, and found solid gold every time. Nor should we point at the Camerata, the most likeable of British chamber ensembles.
Symphony No 6, Le Matin, immediately trumpeted the Camerata’s merits, with dextrous solo work from flutes, oboes and comic bassoon, and sharp rhythmic accents propelling the fun forward. Boyd’s specialty throughout the night was the vertiginous dynamic contrast, tapering Haydn down to a whisper only to explode at fortissimo strength in the next quaver.
The composer had many other jokes up his sleeve, most of all in Symphony No 60, Il Distratto, compiled from incidental music written for a 17th century French farce about an absent-minded professor. Scatty behaviour was everywhere, from the first movement’s thematic dithering to the strings’ retuning hiccup in the finale. Delightful music, breezily projected.
Then came the biggest, best bite of the cherry, with the Drum Roll Symphony No 103. Where practicable, players stood up for this one, though sitting hindered none of the timpanist’s heft as he thumped the music into life. Boyd’s musicians kept in clean, precise step with Haydn’s military vigour, prancing tunes and serpentine teasing, all served with high intellectual ingenuity. A composer as glorious as this shouldn’t need any anniversary prod. But let’s rejoice in his festivities.
The Times - June 3, 2009
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