Sunday, April 27, 2008

Return to Haydn

For all the attention I have been paying to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, I realize that it has been five months since I have written about a performance of Joseph Haydn's music (as opposed to music that Mozart dedicated to him). Furthermore, while I have recently used this forum to needle San Francisco Chronicle Music Critic Joshua Kosman for being too dismissive of Mozart's portion of a San Francisco Symphony program, this week's program at Davies Symphony Hall was all-Haydn, meaning that there was no one around to upstage the master! This particular program was prepared by guest conductor Bernard Labadie, and he took an interesting approach. The heart of the program was the Mass in Time of War, performed after the intermission; and the first half of the evening prepared us along two unrelated paths. The symphonic path lead through the "Military" theme of the G major Symphony Number 100; and the evening began on the choral path with the "Te Deum for the Empress Marie Therese," which I had not previously heard.

The first sentence of Kosman's review provides a good point of departure for reflection on this program:

Joseph Haydn's gifts as a musical wit are often the first thing we think of in connection with his music, if only because they put him in such sparse company. Yet he was just as adept at serious business, as Wednesday's spotty but often compelling all-Haydn concert by the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall demonstrated.

In the first place, given that neither Mozart nor Ludwig van Beethoven was shy about exercising wit in their respective compositions, Haydn's company may have been sparse but hardly insignificant, particularly since both of these composers were within his sphere of influence (probably in both directions of influence). Secondly, the attempt to pose wit in opposition to seriousness is a rather serious misreading of the very nature of wit in that period that bridges the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wit had less to do with humor and more to do with the inventiveness of looking at the familiar from an unfamiliar point of view, very much in the spirit that Arthur Koestler examined in his Act of Creation. Thus, wit played an instrumental role in laying the groundwork for the French Revolution, which, within Haydn's time-frame, was about as serious a piece of business as one could encounter.

Having said all that, it would still be fair to say that wit is not Haydn's top priority in the Mass in Time of War. The music has a certain predictability to it that is absent in, for example, the symphony that preceded it. Perhaps Haydn felt that too much invention would interfere with the solemnity of the occasion, remembering the challenges that had confronted Palestrina. After all Haydn was probably most inventive during a "Strum und Drang" period that significantly preceded the rise of German Romanticism; but he was only able to push his inventions so far before the officials of the Esterházy Court finally made it clear that they had experienced "enough of that." In 1796, when Haydn composed this work, most of aristocratic Europe must have felt that they had experienced "enough of that" from countries like France; so it would have made sense for Haydn to choose routine over revolution.

However, if there are no bold experiments of composition in this setting of the mass, there are some of the best ensemble sonorities that one can find in the pre-Romantic repertoire. There are few pieces in which the soloists blend so well not only among each other but also with the chorus that one is almost not aware of them as soloists. Labadie understood this in balancing his resources; and his soloists (soprano Christine Brandes, mezzo Kelley O'Connor, tenor John Tessie, and bass-baritone Nathan Berg) all "bought into" his approach. Indeed, the most outstanding "solo voice" may have been the cello solo, accompanying the bass-baritone setting of "Qui tollis," which almost sounds as if it had never found a place in one of Haydn's cello concertos. Michael Grebanier performed this solo almost as if it were an operatic duet with Berg, and the result was particularly effective in reinforcing the overall solemnity of the occasion.

In contrast there was more of a sense of inventiveness in the "Te Deum," which is a slightly later (1800) composition. Indeed, moments of this work sounded a bit like Haydn was revisiting some of the more inventive techniques he had only recently deployed in his Schöpfung oratorio. Also, while the text of the mass often feels secondary to the rhetorical direction of the music, the "Te Deum" music seems to be more strongly guided by the text. As a result the evening began with Haydn's wit in full force.

That force continued into the symphony. It is easy to recognize the good-natured humor with which he deploys extra percussion instruments more likely to be found in a military band. However, it is only the timpani that intrude in the unexpected style of his earlier "Surprise" symphony. Labadie recognized that the "sound effects" were not intended to overwhelm; and he managed them excellently. As a result Haydn's wit revealed itself primarily in the rhetoric of his phrasing and in the interplay of strings and winds. I am not sure why Labadie opted for playing his grace notes "short" (less than any measured amount). For my ears that approach short-changed some of the phrases and the wit that they entailed. However, so many of his other rhetorical approaches to the score worked so well that I should not criticize him for this one decision but think more about why he made it. After all, as I mentioned at the beginning, it has been five months since I have heard "Haydn in the house." What was most important was that he had returned, leaving a bit of regret that he had been away so long!

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