Manfred Huss / Haydn Sinfonietta Wien

Haydn: Three Theatrical Symphonies

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The BIS label's audiophile series of innovative Haydn programs from the historical-performance-oriented Haydn Sinfonietta Wien under its director Manfred Huss have been generally worthwhile. They are restrained but by no means innocent of Haydn's humor; the matter-of-fact delivery of the broadest jokes in the finale of the Symphony No. 60 in C major, H. 1/60, "Il distratto," where the instruments, reflecting the action in a comic play on-stage, pause in the middle of the movement to tune, is a masterpiece of dry wit. This six-movement work originated as incidental music for a play called Il Distratto (originally French, Le Distrait), and it was popular enough that the Austrian empress demanded an encore performance of it in 1803, three decades after its composition. For the most part it apparently served to evoke the characters rather than represent the action blow by blow. Less obvious jokes are also expertly rendered: hear the delightful harmonic plan of the sonata-form first movement, which seems to hopelessly wander off track in the development section and abruptly returns to home base in the recapitulation. This is a subtle representation of an absent-minded character in the play, and a restrained performance like this one is the way to go in putting it across. The downside here is that the concept of the program as a whole is flawed. The other two works are not "theatrical" in the same way as the Symphony No. 60; the Symphony No. 50 in C major, H. 1/50, "Der Götterrat," whose first and second movements were recycled from the overture to a marionette opera, doesn't much differ from Haydn's usual symphonic language, and the Symphony No. 12 in E major, H. 1/12, seems to be included because of a vague intuition on the part of Huss and a few Haydn scholars that the work might have served as entr'acte music to a lost Haydn opera called Acide. Nevertheless, these are also fine, sparse performances, and the production work of BIS' engineers captures the orchestra's feathery sound with striking transparency (even when auditioned on conventional equipment). You might want to pick one of the other Haydn recordings in the BIS series to begin with, but this one nicely illuminates some of the odder corners of Haydn's output.

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