Gordan Nikolic / Netherlands Chamber Orchestra

Haydn: Sinfonia Concertante in B flat; Symphony No. 100 "Military"; L'Isola diabitata

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There is much to like in this group of Haydn orchestral pieces as rendered by the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and its violinist-leader Gordan Nikolic. The varied program is one -- a symphony, for most of the stretch from Haydn's time to our own, was regarded as the culmination of a sequence of events that would also include shorter works and would display the talents of a variety of soloists, and the mixture of an overture, the Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major, Op. 84, and a late symphony is intelligent and effective. The rarely heard overture to the opera L'isola disabitata is another; the piece called forth from Haydn a slightly different outlook on orchestral-music structure than did the symphonic idiom. It's a colorful, fascinating little work that looks back to the three-movement Italian operatic sinfonia but, as usual with Haydn, gives it several interesting twists. Also noteworthy is the concluding performance of the Symphony No. 100 in G major, "Military." Nikolic plays up the prominent brass parts and the Turkish-influenced percussion that gave the work its nickname, and he manages, with contemporary instruments, to construct an interpretation that parallels Nikolaus Harnoncourt's vision of the symphony as a kind of early antiwar manifesto; the military elements, especially in the trio of the minuet, are made to appear as sharp intrusions that shatter a world of elegant calm. So what's not to like? The central Sinfonia Concertante. This superbly witty piece (if you're not suppressing laughter, you're missing the point) poses deep challenges for interpreters with its full-sized orchestral complement and quartet of soloists, each with a rich repertoire of satirical little jokes. Nikolic gets these jokes; his mock-recitatives in the finale, frivolous statements of an idea later exploited by Beethoven in the Symphony No. 9, are perfectly turned, and his tempos allow room for the music to breathe -- this is a situation in which it's best to take Haydn's Allegro marking in the opening movement as reflexive. But the balance is way off, and it's hard to tell whether it's the engineering or the conducting that went astray. The violin is drowned out in the quartet passages by the solo cello, and all the soloists are overwhelmed by the blaring brass and the full-bore strings of the orchestral tutti sections. The work seems to lurch from one section to another rather than take on the slowly deepening smirk it has in a really first-rate performance (the old Nonesuch LP by Karl Ristenpart and the Chamber Orchestra of the Saare is terrific). In spite of these problems, this disc is enjoyable and Haydn programmers can learn a lot from it.

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