Orpheus’ Energetic Spontaneity

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar</i>

The thought expressed in this column on an earlier occasion, that the best conductor for some music is no conductor at all, applies again in a pair of Deutsche Grammophon CDs documenting the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s latest, happy encounters with symphonies of Joseph Haydn.

To obtain such felicitous results, Orpheus may rehearse/play each work countless times, but if so, the members have managed to retain the same feeling of energetic spontaneity that Haydn brought to the music itself.

One disc (439 779) is devoted to a pair of the lesser-known but no longer obscure nickname symphonies, both in the key of D: No. 53, called “L’Imperiale” for having (possibly) been performed for the Empress Maria Theresia in 1780, and No. 73, named “La Chasse” for the hunt-inspired horn fanfares of the galloping finale. The hardly less engaging or inventive No. 79, in F, rounds out the program.

The other disc (437 783) pairs the fantastic notions of the Symphony No. 60 in C, subtitled “Il Distratto” (The Absent-Minded Man) after a play of that name to which its movements originally served as incidental music, and the blithely elegant No. 91 in E-flat, with the dazzling overture to the opera “Armida” as a bonus.


In all the foregoing, the Orpheus players show the keenest appreciation for some of Haydn’s wildest, wittiest harmonic inventions and delivers them with optimum individual skill and ensemble cohesiveness.

It may have something to do with the instruments they’re playing--Orpheus’ are modern--but above all it’s who’s up front, conductor Frans Bruggen, that characterizes the Haydn performances by the period-instrument Orchestra of the 18th Century.

Bruggen is responsible for minimizing the splendors of two of the greatest, and still least familiar of the “London” symphonies, No. 97 in C and No. 98 in B-flat (Philips 434 921).

The angularity of Haydn’s phrases, his jolting harmonic changes and dynamic contrasts are smoothed out by the conductor in what can only be considered acts of perversion. In Bruggen’s hands such markings as vivace and presto assai are next to meaningless.


By contrast, three of Haydn’s very grand “Paris” Symphonies--No. 85 in B-flat (“La Reine”), No. 86 in D, No. 87 in A--may suffer from a surfeit of energy in the ongoing cycle of complete Haydn symphonies on the Hyperion label in which Roy Goodman directs from the harpsichord the antiquarian Hanover Band (66535).

Still, this is one of the most successful components of the series to date, with Goodman ratcheting down the speed, fury and almost giddy enthusiasm just that notch required to eliminate any notion of frenzy.

One nevertheless wonders why the harpsichord continuo is needed in works so richly scored and lacking the necessity for harmonic filling-in.

Some 20 years ago, when Neville Marriner’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields was still a small orchestra (and still had its hyphens), its performances of all six “Paris” symphonies represented cutting-edge-vital Haydn. Today, reissued in Philips’ valuable and inexpensive “Duo” series (438 727, 2 CDs) they sound ever so slightly thick in sonority. But they remain alert, exuberant readings that did much to influence other musicians to create today’s up-tempo, sharply inflected approach to the composer.


The middle-period symphonies selected by conductor-scholar John Hsu are of quasi-chamber proportions and are played by the excellent period-instrument Apollo Ensemble, whose numbers duplicate those of Haydn’s own 1760s Esterhazy court band: a half-dozen violins, a single viola, cello and bass, pairs of oboes and horns, one bassoon and keyboard continuo.

The works are the rollicking No. 35 in B-flat--one of those pieces in which one can never anticipate what is coming next, yet when it’s all over seems perfectly logical, if not foreordained; the hardly less engaging and surprise-filled No. 42 in D, and the galant No. 23 in G (Dorian 90191).*