Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 94 “Surprise” & 101 “Clock”

Pierre Monteux / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

RCA LSC-2394

Strange as it sounds today, Franz Joseph Haydn was a celebrity in late 18th century England, on par with someone like Bruce Springsteen or Bjork in Iceland. He was recognized in the streets, and huge crowds turned out for the premieres of his many, many symphonies. Being the most famous composer of his day, he could get away with a joke on the audience when he felt like it. Haydn had just finished his stint as the Esterhazy’s personal music director when he arrived in London and conducted his Symphony No. 94 in 1792, the second of the 12 London symphonies. As usual, a throng showed up to hear it.

The Andante second movement starts off placid enough, but as the pianissimo main theme comes to a close, hardly a minute in, an incredibly loud fortissimo chord taken up by the whole orchestra erupts from nowhere. According to anecdotal testimony, the chord was a spur-of-the-moment decision of Haydn’s (he was conducting) to rouse an audience member in the front row who’d gone to sleep. The sleeper was of course brought immediately to his senses, and stood bolt upright to tremendous embarrassment. The episode, as great as it sounds, probably isn’t quite true. One of Haydn’s biographers asked him if the chord was meant as a prank, and the composer responded that no, he’d just wanted to introduce a totally unexpected element into his symphony. Which he certainly did.

What’s more shocking than the “surprise”, perhaps, is the fact that it’s not repeated when the theme returns. This leads to a palpable sense of playful dread that’s a little like re-winding a jack-in-the-box and not have it spring out after it’s scared the bejesus out of you the first time. (Hence the sleeve art.) The rest of the symphony follows a strongly Haydnesque framework, with a Minuet and Trio leading to a fast-paced Allegro molto, which culminates with a timpani coda.

In this and the Symphony No. 104 Monteux brings his understated polish and drama. Haydn isn’t often lauded for his humor, but in this symphony it’s on full display.


Haydn’s Razor


Haydn: Quartet Op. 64 No. 5 “Lark” / Quartet Op. 55 No. 2 “Razor

The Salomon String Quartet

L’Oiseau-Lyre/Decca 414 712-1

Franz Joseph Haydn pretty much invented the string quartet as a serious chamber ensemble. He did one better by composing 68 of them (a few with spurious provenances), more than most composers combined. Many are familiar with his Op. 76 quartets, but this L’Oiseau-Lyre album, with collaborations from Decca and even The Folio Society, presents his “Lark” and somewhat ominous “Razor” string quartets.

In the “Lark”, so called for the high-registered opening of the violin, Haydn was thinking expressly of his violinist friend Joseph Tost, who was playing at the time in Haydn’s private Esterhaza orchestra. And really, it’s a showpiece for Tost more than anything, with a final vivace that’s a fast-forwarded flurry of virtuosity from the violinist.

The title of the first quartet on the Salomons’ recording, however, comes from an apocryphal incident. Apparently, Haydn was frustrated by his inability to find a suitable implement to shave his face while at the Esterhaza palace in Hungary and, in 1790, he traded the score of the quartet to the passing-through music publisher John Bland for a couple of much needed straight-edges, and these were duly supplied.

But the “Razor”, despite it’s jocular background, is more tempestuous than is typical of Haydn, with quite odd transitions. F minor and F major battle it out through the 4-movement work, leading to a back and forth where lengthy silences begin in one key. and the music resumes in the other. Finally, in the Presto that concludes the quartet, F major comes out on top with a spunky little dance.