Haydn: London Symphony & Harmoniemesse

Haydn: ‘London’ Symphony 99 & Harmoniemesse
Handel and Haydn Society, Harry Christophers
Coro 6176. 68’24

Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 in E major is one of his twelve ‘London’ symphonies. Although it was composed in Vienna in 1793, its first performance was in London in 1794 at the Hanover Square Rooms during Haydn’s second London visit. It is his first use of clarinets in a symphony. The woodwind plays a key role, as they do in the Harmoniemesse, the Mass in B-flat major. That name, given after Haydn’s death, refers not to any idea of harmony, but to the use of the Harmonie, the German name for a wind band. With similar instrumentation, these two pieces make for an obvious pairing on the recording from the Boston based Handel and Haydn Society.

Arguably, some of the most interesting harmonies come in the introduction to the Adagio first movement of the symphony. Hadyn flirts with the keys of E and C minor and G major before settling back into E flat major for the jovial opening of the Vivace assay. Although the mood is generally in Haydn’s typically good-natured and approachable style, there are darker moments in the Adagio with its distinctive woodwind passages and two trumpet topped climaxes. The concluding Menuet and Vivace relax the mood, the latter in typical Haydn Rondo form.

During the first performance, it seems that Haydn directed the orchestra seated at a fortepiano, although whether he actually played it is not certain as there is no indication in the score of a piano. None is included in this recording.

The Harmoniemesse Mass in B-flat major was Haydn’s last work. It was composed in 1802 and was the last of a set of six Mass settings composed annually for the nameday of the Esterházy Princess’s nameday. As Lindsey Kemp points out in his excellent programme notes, Hadyn no doubt recalled hearing the large-scale performances of Handel oratorios in Westminster Abbey when composing his Creation and Seasons and elements of that grandeur also inhabit the grandly conceived Harmoniemesse. It was first performed in the Bergkiche in Eisenstadt, then in the grounds of the Esterházy Palace and now in the town centre. It was later to be his burial place and memorial.

It is a powerful work as befits the grand occasion, which was followed by a grand dinner and ball in the palace. It has a similar subdued and harmonically adventurous opening as the Symphony 99, on this occasion diverting from the B flat key to a remote G flat. The opening of the Agnes Dei sounds very similar to the British National Anthem – perhaps another memory of England?

This CD was recorded in Boston’s Symphony Hall, a much larger space than the Bergkiche, with a corresponding change in the acoustic. I imagine that the choir of the Handel and Haydn Society is also much larger than Hadyn’s forces. Whether Hadyn’s singers used quite as much vibrato as these upper voices do is open to question, but I would have prefered a more stable vocal line from both soloists and chorus.

The period instruments of the orchestra are impressive, particularly the woodwind players, who have a lot to do. Harry Christophers catches the varying mood of Haydn’s writing well, avoiding overdoing the speed or, indeed, the pathos, and allowing the music to speak for itself. Incidentally, the Handel and Haydn Society was founded just six years after Hadyn died.