Haydn Done Right to End the Evening

United StatesUnited States Britten, Stamitz, and Haydn: Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Dirk Brossé (conductor), Ayane Kozasa (viola), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10.11.2014 (BJ)

Britten: Simple Symphony, Op. 4
Carl Stamitz: Viola Concerto in D major, Op. 1
Haydn: Symphony No. 84 in E-flat major


Encountering a Haydn symphony in the concert hall is a pleasure that still comes too infrequently. The pleasure was intensified on this occasion by two even more unusual factors.

First of all, instead of placing the 84th Symphony at the beginning of the evening and thus treating it as little more than a curtain-raiser, the Chamber Orchestra’s music director, Dirk Brossé, ended the evening with it. Some years ago, when I was serving as artistic adviser to the North Netherlands Orchestra, I made a corresponding programming decision, and the reaction of one subscriber to hearing Haydn at the culmination of the concert was typical: “Mr. Jacobson, I never realized Haydn was such a great composer.”

The other added fillip to my enjoyment on 10 November was that we actually heard a whole Haydn symphony, not just the bits that are left when the conductor has skipped as many repeats as he feels he can get away with disregarding. The balance of the work, and its sheer scale, were thus restored to the level the composer had in mind—and this is a symphony that amply deserves such treatment. The only reason it is less well known than two or three of the other works in the set Haydn wrote for Paris can surely be only that is doesn’t have the easily remembered label of a nickname: to my taste, No. 84 is at least as inexhaustibly inventive–and subtle–as its near neighbors the “Bear,” the “Hen,” and “The Queen (of France).”

Brossé’s fidelity to the text was, happily, of a piece with his obvious affection for and understanding of every aspect of the symphony. Tempi, articulation, phrasing, and orchestral execution were all on a memorably high level, and I am confident that this exemplary performance must have served, like the one in Holland back in the 1990s, to instill a proper sense of Haydn’s stature as a master in more than one previously unconvinced listener.

Benjamin Britten’s charming youth-work, the Simple Symphony, is less of a rarity, and it was played with comparable skill and dedication. Brossé, moreover, provided the agreeable surprise of a previously unannounced work, adding the Cantus in Memoriam Britten, one of Arvo Pärt’s most attractive pieces, to the program in a performance of eloquent simplicity.

The first of Carl Stamitz’s two viola concertos, dating probably from the early 1770s, is a distinct rarity in contemporary concert programs. It is good if not great music, and though the soloist, the orchestra’s principal violist, Ayane Kozasa, is clearly an accomplished player with a clean technique and delicately nuanced tone, I have to say that her performance made a less than overwhelming case for its revival.

The problem was Ms Kozasa’s evident unwillingness to stand still. Her dreamy swaying to and fro during the orchestral ritornello that begins the concerto could have been dismissed as a merely visual distraction of no musical consequence. Continuing unabated when she was actually playing, however, it had the effect of constantly shifting the focus of her viola’s sound, because the instrument found itself facing in different directions from one moment to the next. She is too good a musician to make herself the victim of so easily avoidable a vice, and I hope very much to have the opportunity of hearing her again at a time when will surely have shaken it off.

Bernard Jacobson

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