These Haydn symphonies date from around 1760, when the symphonic genre was just a few years old; they're a little earlier than the conventional numbering suggests. They aren't among Haydn's most memorable works, but the listener attuned to his specific sort of genius will find all sorts of ways in which he tried out the expanding boundaries of the new symphonic form. Hear the very courtly, minuet-like but duple movement of the Symphony No. 18, which tweaks the forms of the old Baroque suite as it introduces syncopated rhythms over its carefully stepping bass. Only one work, the big Symphony No. 20 in C major, which includes trumpets and timpani, has the conventional four-movement structure; the other pieces have varying orderings of three or four movements. The Symphony No. 20 drops the martial instruments in its slow movement, and Haydn balances the imposing sound of the outer movements with an extended andante melody. Most of the movements (including this andante) are cast in binary form, but one can see Haydn thinking beyond its outlines with his characteristic cheerful humor.
Irish-Canadian conductor Kevin Mallon leads the modern-instrument but Classical-specialist Toronto Chamber Orchestra from a continuo harpsichord, appropriate for this stage of Haydn's career, and he occasionally (as Haydn himself might have) brings it to the fore. The orchestra, composed of some of Canada's top orchestral musicians, is spot-on, and Mallon is a leader attuned to the feathery but already subtly humorous world of early Haydn. The Naxos label's ongoing Haydn symphonies project (this is volume 31) represents an ideal use of that low-budget outfit's talents. These symphonies aren't recorded terribly often, and this is a new recording that would have had a hard time finding an outlet anywhere else but will be welcome news for the confirmed Haydn fan.