Haydn- smarter than Brahms

I’m in the midst of packing for a busy trip to Oregon, but I really wanted to share a couple of thoughts about our concert this past weekend with Lancashire Chamber Orchestra. It was great to see the hall so packed!

The orchestra has been improving consistently since I met them, thanks to a lot of hard work from everyone there. It seems like there was a big jump in everything about the time we moved into our new hall 18 months ago, but between the Gal concert in October and this one, I think we’ve reached a new level. Somehow, we’re reaching a new audience and playing better- an exciting combination!

I wanted to talk a bit about my own experience of the music on this concert. One of the nice things about having been at this for a little while is that one gradually does start to feel like you already have a foundation to build on in terms of your repertoire. It’s been a long time since I did a concert entirely of pieces that I was looking at for the first time, although there is usually something new on every concert. Saturday night was all new repertoire, and not only pieces I hadn’t conducted before- these were works that, while I may have heard them, I’d never played any of them in my cello days, nor covered them, nor, to be honest, really thought too much about them. I went in with an open mind.

I came away thinking that was a lucky place to be, and remembering that the coolest thing about being a musician is the music you get to play, and discovering a new piece, just like (forgive the cliché) falling in love, is hard to beat.

The Brahms D major Serenade is probably done once for every 50 performances of one of the symphonies. Ask why and people will probably tell you it’s too long. I was asked once to conduct it on my first concert as a guest with a somewhat dodgy (at that time) orchestra, and said it was way too hard for them, but I said the same thing about the symphonies. Why?

I’m sure there’s a reason, but I doubt it’s a good one. I was having a beer with composer Edward Gregson after our rehearsal of his trombone concerto the other day, and he showed me his score- the original, hand-written ink copy. On the title page, there was a large blot of white-out under the end of the word ‘Concerto.” It seems that when Eddie wrote the piece, he called it a Concertino, not a Concerto. After all, it’s only 18 minutes long and written for chamber orchestra. When he showed it to his publisher, the chap explained that getting a trombone concerto performed is challenging, but that getting a trombone concertino performed is impossible. They grabbed the whiteout and changed it then and there in the publishers office, the piece has been performed dozens if not hundreds of times.

“Concertino” might have been a more accurate description, but “Concerto” was a better title. Brahms the moralist would never have called the Serenade a Symphony, but we could- I bet if I recorded it as “Symphony no. 0 in Six Movements” it would outsell every Serenade recording ever made combined, even if I made absolutely clear it’s the same work, not a note changed. Why fight it? The world is, in some ways, a dumb place. People like symphonies, they’re not so sure about serenades. Also, people listen to serenades to try and figure out why it isn’t a symphony- they’re looking for the bits that are less serious, less taut, less integrated or less polished.

Anyway- I fell head over heels for the piece. The first movement is a wonderful take on Beethoven 6 with all those rustic fifths, the second foreshadows my favorite of the Haydn Variations, but it’s the Adagio which makes the piece for me. I know I just did the piece so I’m a little biased, but I think it’s even better than the slow movements of the symphonies. It’s a true, epic Adagio- worthy of Bruckner even, and full of the spirit of Schubert. The fourth movement is charming- it’s the only real “serenade” music in the piece, the following scherzo has hilarious shout-outs to the Scherzo of Beethoven 5 and The Messiah, and the Finale is fab. It’s proper music of the country (as opposed to the excreble “country music”), earthy, rough and visceral.  Brahms manages to conjure reminiscences of the earlier movements, bringing cohesion and closure to his longest orchestral work.

The first half- Haydn 72 and the 2nd Shostakovich Piano Concerto was just as rewarding. Haydn we expect to be funny (although many people don’t know that Haydn was always the joker but never the fool), but the Shostakovich is one of his funniest pieces. It’s about his only major work that begins and ends happy! If you don’t know Haydn 72, you must. It’s like a slightly more deranged version of the more famous “Horn Call” symphony. We sat the horns antiphonally and they played their guts out. After that, you get insane virtuoso solos for concertmaster, principal cellist, principal flute, principal double bass, sextet of oboe and horns with bassoon continuo, et all… It’s a wonderfully perverse  take on the idea of a symphony- why didn’t he call it a serenade instead, since that seems a more honest description of the piece?

Because Haydn was smarter than Brahms. 

Daniel Browell did a fine job on the concerto- I’m so fond of, and convinced by, Shostakovich’s own performances of the concertos that I’m a somewhat biased listener, but he put forth a quite convincing view of the piece. Lovely slow movement.

On March 2nd, you’ll be able to order all 104 Haydn Symphonies in 320 bit Mp3 format for about 22 pounds or $34 bucks….

Genre: Orchestral Artist(s): Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra Conductor(s): Adam Fischer Expected Release Date: 2nd March 2009 

More Details on Haydn – Complete Symphonies (The Esterhazy Recordings) “The performances by Adam Fischer and his Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra have the edge over Dorati and his band of Hungarian exiles. Fischer’s body of strings is appreciably smaller, and his violin and cello soloists sweeter toned, surer in their intonation and more imaginative in their phrasing. In the slow movements the greater refinement of Fischer’s soloists and his rather lighter touch are invariably more persuasive.” – Gramophone“The sound is at once warmly atmospheric and intimate, with high contrasts of dynamic and texture. Continuing to use modern, not period instruments, but with limited string vibrato and Viennese oboes and horns standing out distinctively, these are recordings to challenge the longtime supremacy of Dorati’s pioneering Decca set. This release completes the Nimbus Haydn Symphony Cycle; fourteen years in the making and comprising 32 compact discs. It is the first Haydn cycle to be recorded in digital sound specifically for CD.” – The Penguin GuidePlease note: this release is in MP3 format at 320 kbps. Files can be transferred directly to an ipod or MP3 player or the discs can be played on a computer, most DVD players or the latest generation of in-car players.

The set includes a 19,000 word comprehensive analysis on the Symphonies and a 6,000 word article on making the recordings, with an overview of the project from the conductor Adam Fisher. 



No much money to find out what you’ve been missing all your life.


UPDATE- Taking my own lesson, I have changed the title of this post from the forgettable “LCO Wrap-up” to the current one. That may also make me smarter than Brahms…..

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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2 comments on “Haydn- smarter than Brahms”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    By the way-

    My favorite Haydn symphony this week (no. 60 “Il Distratto) is in 6 movements, so there’s absolutely no reason Brahms couldn’t or should’nt have called op 11 a symphony. Happy days- it looks like I’m conducting 60 in July with the Helix Ensemble (on a fantastic, 3 symphony, program- Beethoven 4, Sawyers 2 and Haydn 60)

  2. Zoltan

    A few more posts such great posts about Haydn and I might have to seriously look into him! 😉
    (and yeah, he was smarter than Brahms — but he wasn’t intimidated by Beethoven, obviously)

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