In 1761, at the age of 29, Haydn joined the household of the Esterházy family as Vice-Kapellmeister and set to work proving his worth by writing the three symphonies we know as Le Matin, Le Midi and Le Soir; his only true cycle and the most programmatic of his symphonies.
The idea for illustrating the times of the day was suggested by Prince Paul Anton but the only truly explicit passages are the sunrise opening of Le Matin and the storm of the conclusion to Le Soir – the flute’s forked-lightning motif Haydn would re-use some 40 years later in The Seasons.
The cycle harks back to the concerto grosso style with concertante intrumentation displaying the individual talents of his front-desk players to win over his new workmates – everybody gets a turn in the spotlight, even the double-bass during the trios; that of Le Matin hints at Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.
Seven years later on the death of his superior, Haydn assumed the full position as Kapellmeister so took on responsibilities for writing church music while churning out reams of chamber music including numerous baryton trios for the voracious musical appetite of Prince Nikolaus. Despite the workload, Haydn produced the extraordinary body of symphonies we know as his Sturm und Drang period, and three of his most daring are heard here.
No 35 in B Flat has some formal innovations in its triple-time first movement and a wonderfully witty finale that confounds expectations. No 46 in B (a rare key for the time) has a gossamer light Poco adagio with muted strings and bewildering finale with tension-generating pauses during one of which the preceding Minuet suddenly pops up again before the main theme sweeps it aside and then unexpectedly dissipates. No 51 in B Flat is positively bizarre, most so in its slow movement theme where the first horn ascends to the stratosphere then the second horn descends to a growling basso – he must have had some extraordinary players on the payroll.
The Heidelberger Sinfoniker certainly do – their playing is thrilling throughout this set. Their period-aware approach using natural horns plus vibrato-lite wind and strings is the ideal compromise. Fey conducts the Tageszeiten but steps aside for the rest allowing the concertmaster to lead as Haydn himself would have done.
If I was starting to collect a Haydn symphony cycle, this series would be my first choice – slow as its release has been over many years now. Fey has had a few missteps with some mannersisms creeping in, but by and large it is the most consistent in approach. If you have other bits and pieces these individual releases may fill the gaps, but even if you might duplicate I would recommend this latest volume.