American Record Guide

Here’s a dated, but fairly effective mixed bag of lesser-known choral and orchestral compositions from the ever-industrious pen (and fertile mind) of Josef Haydn. The choral performances are from 1978, and the orchestral performances date back to 1964. All but the symphony are new to me.

Like so much of Haydn’s work, the Stabat Mater (from 1767) is a neglected masterpiece, having gotten only a handful of recordings over the years. In fact, Haydn himself considered it an important turning point in his career, believing that his fellow musicians only began taking his efforts seriously after the piece drew the attention and effusive praise of Johann Adolf Hasse, one of Europe’s most revered composers.

The composer obviously took great pains with Medieval monk Jacopone da Todi’s famous Latin text depicting the Holy Mother’s agony as she witnessed her son’s crucifixion. The music is scored for the usual soloists, chorus, and small string orchestra (with occasional oboes or English horns)—plus alternating organ-harpsichord continuo. Careful attention to the texts reveals how beautifully Haydn managed to reflect their aching grief and pain in music.

The single-movement Libera me, Domine wasn’t discovered until the 1960s. Probably written between 1782 and 1790, it may have served as funeral music for an Esterhazy princess. The music (for chorus and string orchestra) alternates choral sections with chant-passages, radiating crushing sadness and melancholy from beginning to end.

I enjoyed the performances, but was hardly bowled over. I’ve heard the Chorale Philippe-Caillard before, and their work here is quite admirable—as is the orchestra’s. But the soloists, while adequate, are not particularly impressive. Still, everybody does well enough to convince me of the music’s considerable worth.

Moving on to the orchestral works, the album’s largely tragic tone persists with Symphony No. 44 in E minor, the so-called Trauersinfonie (mourning symphony). It enjoys some renown as one of Haydn’s better-known sturm und drang (storm and stress) symphonies. Its minor-key dramatics and musings keep things tense and melancholy by turns, and the only rays of resigned respite are in the gentle Adagio.

The Concerto in F for violin, harpsichord, and strings, is the only upbeat work of the lot. It’s not only buoyantly reminiscent of Haydn’s famous Sinfonia Concertante , but it approaches that work’s exalted levels of spirit and genius. It was written between 1761 and 1765—a period largely devoted to experimentation and demonstration of his capabilities.

Orchestra and soloists do very well here, in recordings that wear their age well. The symphony, in particular, is very cleanly performed—with plenty of punch, drama, pathos, and some exquisitely nuanced turns of phrase. The analog sound is nicely remastered. The booklet is useful and informative, but lacks translations for the choral material. While I’m glad to have this, I’m still going to be on the prowl for better recordings of the vocal numbers—especially the Stabat Mater . There are several recordings out there from much better-known artists.

—Lindsay Koob