Haydn in London:
Country Musician and International Celebrity

Written by Hugh Wolff for the CD booklet of
Haydn Symphonies Nos 92,96,97, Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt

Joseph Haydn composed almost eighty symphonies during the first twenty-five years he worked in quiet isolation at the Esterházy court. This unusual circumstance allowed Haydn to experiment, developing and polishing his craft. By the time his fame had spread to Paris and London, his mastery was complete; he was fully prepared to dazzle an international audience. Haydn knew he had to win both the new middle‑class and the old aristocracy, so the nine symphonies written for Paris and the twelve for London delight both the senses and the mind. They offer broad comedy with contrapuntal fireworks, simple gaiety with heartfelt emotion, rustic tunes with serious drama, in a language understood by shopkeeper and nobleman alike, just as Mozart made Figaro and Susanna more lovable than the Count, Haydn started with tunes you could whistle on your way home, not pompous abstractions. But in expanding these simple materials into full symphonies, Haydn held himself to the most rigorous intellectual standards. Far from pandering to a low‑brow audience, he elevated the commonplace to high art.

The symphonies on this disc date from Haydn's first trip to London (1791 - 92) at the invitation of the impresario and musician Johann Peter Salomon. Each treats the listener to a virtuoso display of delights. Here are a few of my favorites:

Symphony No. 92:

- The gentle, mysterious Adagio introduction begins without the customary loud first note, and the Allegro spiritoso ([1] 1:26) starts tentatively - a soft, sinuous melody over an unresolved harmony. Imagine the seduction of expectant Londoners hearing these first notes from the famous arrival on their shores.

- The Trio of the Menuet ([3] 2:11 - 4:29). Here Haydn plays rhythmic games of such sophistication that I defy anyone listening without the score to know exactly where the three beats are.

- The rustic Finale's folk‑style melody, whose development ([4] 2:35) is characterized by false starts and unexpected silences, then a wild contrapuntal ride through the whole orchestra.

Symphony No. 96:

- The slow movement's combination of graciousness, drama and wit. The elegant opening tune is interrupted by a stormy high Baroque fugato ([6] 1:39). After the reprise, two solo violins (4:34) gently ease us into the distant key of Eb. Next, a comic moment (5:32), as three woodwinds trill until virtually breathless. No wonder the audience at the first London performance demanded the movement be repeated.

- Another comic Finale, where each time Haydn reintroduces the tune a split second later than expected.

Symphony No. 97:

- The striking dissonances of the Adagio introduction. This yearning, ambiguous music couldn't be farther from the brash, simple C major fanfare of the Vivace that follows ([9] 0:51). How can elements this diverse exist side by side? In an astonishing display of originality, Haydn unifies the introduction and Vivace with a melody in common.

- The 'al ponticello' passage in the third variation of the slow movement­ ([10] 4:11). Here Haydn asks the violins to play close to the bridge of the instrument, creating an usually bright sound. The effect is both comic and eerie, and makes the sudden bittersweet yearning of the coda that follows (5:59) all the more effective.

- The delightful Ländler‑style melody of the Trio ([11] 1:25). There is a witty aside from Haydn to his friend Salomon, concertmaster at the first performance alongside Haydn at the keyboard. Haydn gives the melody to the Salomon an octave above everyone else (2:21), but not without a wag of the finger. In the score he writes: 'Salomon Solo ma piano' - solo for Salomon, but played softly! Imagine Haydn at this moment grinning slyly at his friend.

Over two hundred years later it is impossible to resist a grin or two of our own when listening to these inspired symphonies.

In making this recording the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and I have tried to create an historically accurate sound within the context of a modern orchestra. The trumpets and horns are modern copies of old valveless Instruments. The timpani are copies of eighteenth century drums and the flutes are wooden. The first and second violins are seated facing each other across the front of the stage. We have used harpsichord, improvised from the score as we imagine Haydn might have. Occasionally, we have ornamented repeated passages and fermatas, but in matters of vibrato, we have followed the rubric 'less is more'.

Hugh Wolff

Haydn in London