Despite a prolific career and pivotal role in the development of the symphony, string quartet and piano trio, Classical-era composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) remains oddly underappreciated.
To counter this oversight, Italian conductor Giovanni Antonini has joined forces with the Joseph Haydn Foundation Basel in a project called Haydn2032. The ambitious initiative consists of recordings and performances of all 107 of the composer’s symphonies to mark the 300th anniversary of his birth in 2032. Participating in the project are Il Giardino Armonico, an Italian period-instrument ensemble Antonini has led since 1989, and the Basel Chamber Orchestra, for which he is principal guest conductor. Several recordings in the series have already been released, with the fourth installment, “Haydn 2032: No. 4, Il distratto,” winning a 2017 Gramophone Classical Music Award for best orchestral recording.
“As in the previous volumes,” wrote Gramophone music critic David Threasher in a May 2017 review of the fourth and the third installment, “the orchestral performance is breathtaking in its accuracy – the sort of Haydn-playing you dream of. They’ve set themselves another 15 years to complete this cycle (fingers crossed), and if we’re all still around for the composer’s 2032 tercentenary, this may well become the period-instrument Haydn cycle by which all others are measured.”
When the foundation came to Antonini four years ago with the Haydn2032 idea, he first thought it was crazy. But he quickly realized the initiative was a unique opportunity because of the time and resources that the foundation was willing to make available to him and his collaborators. “It’s kind of like a laboratory,” he said, “where we can develop an interpretation, and I hope a different interpretation, about this music.”
Antonini cites several possible reasons for the continued underestimation of Haydn. Part of it is the way symphony orchestras sometimes treat his music, using it as little more than a springboard to other works on a program. “It seems like Haydn is a kind of warm-up piece,” he said. In addition, Papa Haydn, as the composer is sometimes called, was meant as affectionate moniker in the 18th century, Antonini said, but it has come to possess pejorative overtones, suggesting that the composer was kind of a naïf and certainly no Mozart or Beethoven — notions that are completely misguided.
Unlike the music of other composers, Antonini believes that performers need a kind of “code” to read and decipher Haydn’s music properly. “If you perform Mozart even in a boring way, it’s always good,” Antonini said. “With Haydn, it’s not the case.” The appeal of Haydn’s music does not lie so much with an immediately appealing melody but in the way he develops and structures his music — elements that take more time to uncover. “As in Italian music, many things are not written down,” he said. And it’s important to find the key to unlocking those elements. “It’s what I’m trying to do,” he said. “I don’t say I have the right key, of course, but this, I would say, is the method.”
Caryl Clark, professor of music history and culture at the University of Toronto and a Haydn expert, said that the roots of many of Haydn’s symphonies can be traced to mid-18th century Italian comic opera — not just the wit but also the theatricality of these works.
“Out of that background, if you take away the vocal writing and listen to the way that the orchestra puts together repetitive phrases and what not, that is the generative sound for his [Haydn’s] symphonies in a lot of this period,” she said. “And maybe there will be an instrumental line, a first violin or an oboe or a flute or something, that will make you say, ‘There is the vocal line. We’ve just heard a snippet of a melody that could have words to it.’”
Coming to Haydn from his background in Baroque music, especially that of Italy, Antonini said, he believes he and his collaborators can bring out something new in the composer’s music, especially the theatrical aspects noted by Clark. It’s important to realize that Haydn was born in the Baroque era and lived long enough to know Beethoven. “There’s an incredible development in his music,” Antonini said. “If you take the first symphonies, they are not yet classical music in the way that we think of classical music.”
Antonini will culminate his CSO concerts with one of Haydn’s most famous works, Symphony No. 103 (Drumroll). The 11th of the composer’s 12 London symphonies, this work famously opens with a long roll of the timpani. “I think it’s one of the best of Haydn’s symphonies,” he said. “Also, when Haydn performed this symphony, he had a lot of players, so these kinds of pieces are particularly good for a modern symphony orchestra. It makes a good concert finale, Antonini said and added, “It’s a piece that I perform quite often.”