Pekka Kuusisto Plays Vasks
- January 12, 2014
Haydn expert H.C. Robbins Landon has pointed out that, by coincidence, Haydn’s first and last symphonies are in the same key (D major), and laying those two works side by side highlights the astonishing distance between them. No. 1 is an aristocratic diversion for small orchestra, lasting little more than 10 minutes, intended for a handful of guests in a palace. No. 104 is a tour de force, about 30 minutes of serious music written for a large, discriminating audience in a public concert hall in London. Clearly, the public event was much more lucrative. After a lifetime in aristocratic service, Haydn made enough from that performance alone to more than triple his estate.
This symphony was the principal offering in Haydn’s last concert in London. From the first bar to the last, it is a work of unsurpassed concentration, invention and consummate mastery. Never one to squander notes, Haydn disdained composers who were spendthrift with ideas:
Once I had seized upon an idea, my whole endeavor was to develop and sustain it in keeping with the rules of art. In this way I tried to keep going, and this is where so many of our new composers fall down. They string out one little piece after another, they break off when they have hardly begun, and nothing remains in the heart when one has listened to it.
Haydn managed to “keep going” here by deriving the germinal ideas of all four movements from the quiet, unassuming opening melody. The Andante and Finale vary the falling opening phrase, while the Menuet echoes the second rising motif. Tying everything together in this way could, in uninspired hands, sound terribly arid and academic. But, as with so many things, this is a case of not what you do but how you do it. Hearing this symphony can be like eavesdropping on a brilliant mind as it tosses ideas around.
The influence of Mozart is felt in the opening bars, where stark unisons and growling timpani share something of the demonic monumentality of Don Giovanni. The energy and drive of the main body of the movement are wonderfully contrasted by the serenity of the slow movement. Beware, though! As in other London symphonies, Haydn explores an expansive and disparate landscape in a set of variations before coming to rest. The Menuet offers a bucolic and good-natured respite before plunging into the melee of the Finale, based on a Croatian folk tune from which Haydn creates a dazzling race to the finish.
Svend-Einar Brown ©2008