Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Paul Sacher Saal, Don Bosco Cultural Centre, Waldenburgerstrasse 34, 4052 Basel, Switzerland

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Contrasting Giovanni Antonini’s Haydn 2032 project and postings to date, this concert, preceded by a ‘Haydn Lounge’ (English) and readings (German), focused on the bigger late Haydn (1788-92) – Symphonies 90, 94 (Surprise), 98 – plus the Overture to Rossini’s La Scala di Seta (1812) thrown in for humorous diversion if not exactly player comfort (woodwinds and natural horns having their work cut out). Combining Antonini’s two Haydn 2032 orchestras (, playing in the home of the (bigger) Kammerorchester Basel, the intention of the programme was “to reconstruct precisely the substantial orchestral line-up that was available for [Salomon’s 1791-95 London] performances of Haydn’s latest symphonies in the Hanover Square Rooms.” Within, further, a room of similar shoebox design, reverberation time and audience capacity (500) albeit of probably harder, less warm acoustic than eighteenth-century audiences would have known. But, period instruments and (presumed) stage layout aside, minus keyboard direction/continuo: “At the Harpsichord Dr Haydn”, “Dr Haydn will be at the Piano Forte”, old Public Advertiser announcements tell us repeatedly.

With personality, drive and interactively supportive musicians to keep us in good spirits, Antonini’s Haydn is a vibrant journey Even if one can’t always agree with everything he does, enlightenment is assured, with obscure corners and forgotten jewels polished and laid anew. The three big Symphonies of the evening mostly lived up to expectation. Standing antiphonal violins, violas. Sharp attacks, ‘speaking’ bowed articulations, full-throated unisons and pizzicatos, explosive stamping fortes, whispered silken pianos, fearless bass lines, viola and second violin rhythms given their head, likewise kettledrums. Woodwind detail ever-present. Repeat-conscious. Brisk one-in-a-bar Minuets – though, unexpectedly for some HIP followers, dispensing with da capo repetitions. Best was No.94, a reading at boiling point, surging forwards, glorying in energy. Encouraging the syncopated off-beat strikes of the timpani at bars 107ff of the slow movement, Antonini conjured a sudden visceral scenario of Habsburg gypsies landed in Mayfair, liberally arrayed. Given the ‘scherzo’ fever and pointing of the Minuet (it’s marked Allegro molto – no courtly dance), Beethoven Seven was as if in the wings. “She was a beautiful English widow who loved me very much. I would have married her had I been able.” Rebecca Schroeter, the “girl in rose”. “My dearest love” she would write. What must have she felt in the presence of such pulsating, life-giving music? Hanover Square, March 23, 1792.

No.98 – the fzstaccato, bowings and rests of the germinal introduction all given place and emphasis – went on its inventive way, a mixture of directness, debate, vamped accompaniments, chamber interludes, and vibrant woodwind exposure. Where I distanced myself was in the conception of the closing Più moderato – all too brisk, with the weakly microphoned ‘cembalo’ solo (harpsichord) so recessed in sound and balance (pace Ádám Fischer) as to deprive it of what grace or purpose it has. Deliberated, agreed, but Doráti’s old Philharmonia Hungarica version made this a striking ‘crinoline’ moment I’m still partial to. Bold theatrical contrasts are part and parcel of the Antonini style – hands flashing, hands in supplication, arms spread like gliding sea-birds, body crouching, eyes piercing. He brought fire and brimstone to No.90, written a year before the French Revolution. Heroic brass, rattling drums, scurrying strings, tuttis enhanced by reedy bassoon lining, muscular development passages. But then, out of the blue, confusion at the change of key from C to D-flat in the Finale, bars 168-71. A measured four-bar rest is wanted here, in tempo without fermata. Antonini extended this, first to twelve bars, then eight on the reprise. Rhythmically disruptive, it had a near-fatal impact on the structure, Haydn’s teasing lurch twice stripped of tension. (When Beethoven attempted this in the ‘Eroica’ he got rid of the rests.) Well miscalculations, forgetfulness, will happen, especially in ‘live’ performance. Alpha’s studio recording will no doubt get it right.