A Fierce Farewell

Friday night I conducted Orchestra of the Swan in a program of

Mozart- Symphony no. 13

Haydn- Cello Concerto in C Major (Nick Stringfellow, cello)

Mendelssohn- Songs Without Words

Haydn- Symphony no. 34 (“The Farewell”)

I had the makings of a lengthy and thoughtful blog post about this concert swirling in my head for hours after the concert, but I was too physically tired to type, even though I couldn’t sleep. Coming off a nasty flu in the week, and still struggling with my throat, it’s been a tough, tough week physically.

So, most of that post is going to end up in the ether.

Let me just say, fearlessly stating the obvious (but perhaps not yet obvious enough)  that Haydn 45 is an astonishing, stunning, mind blowing, heart-wrending, fist-clenching, breath-holding super masterpiece. For all those suckers out there who still think of Haydn’s music as the essence of servile gentility, and of classical music in general of being the cozy sound track of the upper middle classes, and of chamber orchestra being the slightly more well-mannered cousin of the symphony orchestra, I wish you could have been there.

This was Haydn played by a small orchestra of committed virtuosos absolutely playing like they were on fire. No Bartok or Stravnisky work could have brought out more energy or physicality. We had foot stamping, we had grunting, we had snorting. The first movement had the sort of apocalyptic drive one associates with a good Beethoven 5, but the Haydn is more experimental and therefore, perhaps, more dramatic. (We worked wonders with the long delayed second theme- it took up a huge chunk of our rehearsal time to achieve it, though.) That slow movement flirted with sublime madness- some of those modulations must be among the most strangely beautiful and beautifully strange moments in all music. Fortunately, the finale didn’t lapse into camp- I’d hoped that it would feel like an honest meditation on silence and mortality, and it felt that way. Can I just say, for the record, (completely breaking my “glass houses” rule) how juvenile and annoying I found Daniel Barenboim’s mugging in the New Year’s Day performance this piece with the VPP in January. Haydn deserved to be taken seriously, especially when billions are watching.

Somehow with Haydn, too many people spray paint a veneer of safe on top of everything he does. The Strum und Drang bits are played as quaint relics of a musical fad for dramatic music instead of as real dramatic music. The jokes are robbed of their bite, and therefore, their humor. The sad stuff is tamed and gentrified. What can’t we just forget all those assumptions, and play what he wrote- let the wild music be wild, the funny music be funny? I suppose period bands have the great advantage here because they can rip into their instruments with total abandon and still sound “of  Haydn’s time” where a modern instrument pushed too hard will start to sound Bartok-ish if one isn’t incredibly disciplined. Still, only one period band I know really rips the strings off in Haydn (Concentus Musicus Wien, under Harnoncourt, who aren’t afraid to push the old instruments to their limits).

Anyway, wish you could have been there. Actual stomping onstage from the players. In Haydn. I felt like I was back in my rock band days…..

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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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5 comments on “A Fierce Farewell”

  1. Pingback: Woah | The Wrong End of a Telescope

  2. Zoltan

    You’re on to something here Ken! Reading this post I got reminded how baroque music (Vivaldi especially) sounds different nowadays than from recordings 30 years ago: too tame. Maybe that’s what Haydn needs as well.
    Perhaps it’s time for me to dig into Haydn with Harnoncourt!

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Zoltan- We’ll make a Haydn fan of you yet! Harnoncourt is one of the more interesting Haydn guys, to be sure, and his 45 is very thought provoking. Well worth hearing.

    Still, whether it’s Haydn or Vivaldi or later music, there’s more to be learned from the scores themselves than from past or current performers. With Haydn and Schumann, the accrued misconceptions about them and their work is actually destructive, where with Brahms its probably more a matter of there being a bit of complacency. Still, the scores have so much to teach us, and it’s so much better to read them without prejudice…… Hopefully the best Beethoven and Haydn and Schumann and Mahler all await in generations to come….

    Many thanks!

  4. Zoltan


    Let’s see what I can find in the music library today…

    (of course, I meant that baroque music sounded too tame on most recordings in the past than today, thus we need more lively Haydn as well)

    And indeed, there’s also a lot of prejudice at work in music. Even though I know so little of Schumann’s works (too much music, too little time — but I’m getting there!) I already heard quite a lot about lack of skill in his orchestration (second probably only to Chopin).

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Indeed, Zoltan, I’m sure you have heard that about Schumann. It’s pure bullshit, plain and simple. Complete crap. He was a wonderful and imaginative orchestrator who created some very interesting new uses of brass instruments. A genius.

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