Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Haydn's 23rd Symphony. Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra.

Today I was the victim of a 249 year old prank. There I was, contentedly listening to the cheerful final movement of Haydn's 23rd Symphony and it just petered out, leaving only silence. I stood up, confused, and checked my player. I was aware that the whole opus was rather short, at below twenty minutes, but nothing should finish like that. I played the end of the presto again, and again the piece shrank abruptly from full throttle romp to barely audible string pianissimo. Then nothing. Meeting this imbalance, the listener naturally expects the final crash bang wallop, but it never comes, leaving one dissatisfied, a hungry ghost. I felt like shouting More!, not so much  in appreciation, but because I wanted resolution. But it was not to come, for in this racy piece of music, Haydn has produced something somewhat zen and post-modern - an ending without an ending. The original fade-out in Western music.

People are usually aware of Haydn's sense of mischief from the crashing fortissimo in his later 94th ("Surprise") Symphony. I always thought this naming of the symphony not entirely helpful, as it ensures that new listeners expect the surprise, and are therefore not at all surprised when it happens. Indeed, they expect to be surprised precisely at the end of the piano opening of the second movement. It is commonly thought that this crashing chord was inserted by Haydn to wake up his audience. However, this it not true. In a later interview, Haydn observed that it was there just to jolt and amuse the audience. I actually think that the brilliance of the gag was that the fortissimo was not used again for the duration of the whole symphony. It was thus like one of Garkinkel's breaching experiments, where people have to make sense of a singular normative outrage. One envisages people in the original audiences, looking to each other to check that they hadn't imagined it.

Anyway, back to the 23rd - the original Surprise Symphony. If you have a spare twenty minutes, you could do much worse than playing this. If you have forty minutes, play it again. Joseph Haydn was the pop star in his day, a huge international celebrity. He was also an innovator, and was really the first to consolidate the symphonic structure. Rather than the long drawn out affairs that symphonies later became, Haydn's early symphonies were very short - the EPs of the 18th Century, with four tracks; each the length of a modern pop single.

The first track of the Haydn EP, "23", comes in the form a breezy 3/4 time romp, with fresh use of rhythm, and sheer sheening strings. Unlike the romantic approach to music as expression, the classical ideal was the attainment of heavenly perfection, and I wouldn't bet against Haydn playing in Heaven right now. The andante 2/2 second movement is beautiful in its simplicity, but interesting in its use of syncopation. Strange to consider that what we think of as defining of Jazz, the off beat playfulness before final resolution, has roots going back three centuries. As Jacques Loussier did in his treatment of Bach, somebody needs to highlight the jazz in Haydn. The minuet in 3/3 is a bar by bar alternation between highs and lows - a calling and answer that is mutually elaborative. Wonderful stuff. Finally, the fourth movement is breezy, jolly and classical - a right royal romp around landscaped grounds, before . .

Disappearing. First to pianissimo strings; then to a barely audible pizzicato pluck. And, then, we're left with that unsatisfactory silence. How audiences back in the 18th century would have reacted to this sudden emptiness, one can only guess. My reaction? Play it all over again.

Overall, Haydn's 23rd is a refreshing piece of music - witty, emotional, and hinting at a perfection just beyond out senses. Plato talked about universal, foundational forms that reality approximates to. Haydn almost reveals these forms to us.

Have a listen:

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