I can do no better than quote the opening sentence of the closely knit booklet which comes with this release: ‘This Haydn Society 2CD set features little-known chamber works from the first and last decades of the composer’s life.’ The raw, distinctly rustic nature of the music, coupled with the unrefined vigour of the Jessop Haydn Ensemble recorded in what sounds like a small rural schoolroom (but is, actually, a room in the decidedly urban setting of Sheffield High School), presents a vivid picture of youthful high spirits in the first Notturno , not least its exuberant closing ‘Presto’ with its buoyant hunting-horn calls. If we take that opening sentence at face value, we might realistically expect this to be the work of a teenager possibly reflecting the country life around the Rohrau of his childhood. It is no such thing.
Neither is it the reflective reminiscence of an old man, content in his retirement from the strains and stresses of courtly existence. It is, in fact, something written amidst the hustle and bustle of Vienna and intended for the King of Naples. He had commissioned Haydn to write eight Notturni – in his booklet note Antony Hodgson suggests there were originally nine – all of which were composed between 1788 and 1790. They were originally scored for two lire organizzata (hurdy-gurdy like instruments with strings and pipes), and revised for performance in London during Haydn’s 1791-92 English tour, with more familiar instruments taking the place of the lire organizatta and, in Nos. 3 and 4, violins in place of the clarinets. These are the arrangements performed here.
The first of the Nortturni is unique in that it contains four movements, a jolly ‘March’ setting it all off in great high spirits. All the others are in effect three-movement divertimenti offering, even in the more serious movements (such as the occasionally serious-minded ‘Adagio’ of No. 2 or the vaguely sorrowful ‘Adagio’ of No. 3), music of essentially occasional nature. It is all unfailingly charming and full of delightful moments but of not great musical or intellectual depth. As such it might seem ideal ground for an ensemble formed with the express intention of allowing present-day young players to develop their skills in eighteenth-century performance practice. However, the Sheffield University students who form the core of the Jessop Haydn Ensemble would seem to have a lot more developing to do. Considerable tuning and intonation problems, some poorly disciplined ensemble work (they are badly caught out by the long pauses in the opening stanza of No. 3) and a sense of random rather than carefully prepared balance within the ensemble gives this playing a distinctly rough-and-ready feel. Denis McCaldin, no stranger to working with student musicians, allows them all to enjoy themselves with minimal directional prompting and, while it has a strongly homespun feel to it, this approach undeniably underlines the essential joviality of this music.
Also comprising students – this time from one of London’s premier conservatories – and again unobtrusively conducted by McCaldin, Director of the Haydn Society of Great Britain, the Trinity Haydn Ensemble is a much more polished and assured group and its recording – in Blackheath Concert Halls – is much more warm and spacious. It plays the last two Notturni , works of a more symphonic character than the preceding six, along with the six Scherzandi . These were published in 1765 and are four-movement works of a decidedly symphonic outlook; indeed, Haydn originally described them as such. The musical ideas may be short-lived and rarely subjected to any serious development, but this is unquestionably the work of Haydn; not perhaps, fully mature Haydn but certainly a Haydn well into his manhood years. There are plenty of special moments: an endearing ‘Minuet’ for flute against a delicate pizzicato accompaniment in No. 1, a gloriously vibrant finale to No. 2 which reveals some impressive collective virtuosity from these young players, a magical ‘Adagio’ from No. 4 which seems to tiptoe along with impeccable graciousness, and some tremendously robust unison writing in the finale of No. 6 – all of which is delivered with complete authority by these tautly disciplined players.
Ultimately, however, you may be wondering where music from the first and last decades of the composer’s life is to found on this disc. So am I.