Joseph Haydn was a prolific composer, and wrote 108 symphonies.  Simon Rattle, in his prepared speech before the audience, said “Joseph Haydn is like an iceberg,” and that we normally hear perhaps 5% of his total output.  Presumably to illustrate Haydn’s genius and diversity, Sir Simon came up with an “Imaginary Symphony” consisting of 11 movements.  He asked the audience to hold the applause till the end.   

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra © Terry Linke
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© Terry Linke

As in line with Sir Simon’s intent to recreate the atmosphere of Haydn’s times, the usually bright lighting of the grand hall of Musikverein was dimmed to simulate candle light.  The performance began with the “Representation of Chaos” of The Creation, played slowly and deliberately but with litheness.  The following “Il Terremoto” from the Seven Last Words of Christ was energetic and dynamic, and yet never rushed.  The Sinfonia from L’isola disabitata alternated Largo and Vivace with the fast passage taken at an extremely rapid pace.  The capable players of the Vienna Philharmonic, especially the strings, were game to this almost athletic playing, with no sloppiness audible.  

The maestro chose to play quiet and slow sections as such, as was the case in the Largo of Symphony No. 64.  Even in the most subdued melodies, he kept the music light and not ponderous.  Clarity of each note and phrase was paramount.  Menuetto-Trio of one of the earlier symphonies, No. 6 was interesting as well as somewhat incongruous among the other selections which mostly represent Haydn’s middle period, in that it sounded rather out of place among the more intricate pieces that came before and after.  It benefited nevertheless from Sir Simon’s measured and deliberate approach.

The finale of Symphony No. 46, Presto e Scherzando, was again played with light touch with no frenzies, and was a perfect forerunner for the following Finale of Symphony No. 60, a grand and grave selection.  The introduction to the winter of the Four Seasons was quiet and grave, and was nicely followed by the Presto-Adagio Finale of Symphony No. 45, which began a complete mood change with its transparent clarity. 

The Adagio of this symphony makes it known as the “Farewell” Symphony.  Haydn and the court orchestra were kept longer than expected at his patron Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy’s summer palace, and sensing the musicians’ anxiety to return home, Haydn came up with a subtle way to inform the prince.  As the light of the hall was further reduced, one by one the Philharmonic musicians stopped playing, turned off the light at their music stand, and left the stage.   The brass and wind sections were the first to go, followed by the heavier strings.  Sir Simon also left the podium, leaving only two violin players softly playing in the almost total darkness.

To add to the unusual and eerie atmosphere, the electronic sounds, fast playback of the music, were heard from various parts of the hall in the dark. This was simulating the Works for Flute Clock, a mechanically operated miniature organ, popular during the time.  Amplified throughout the hall, the music sounded quite contemporary.  

Sir Simon Rattle © Terry Linke
Sir Simon Rattle
© Terry Linke
The maestro and musicians returned to the stage to complete the last selection, Allegro assai finale of Symphony No. 90.  It is quite humorous on the part of Haydn to “end” the piece unexpectedly, only to start it in a different key after several measures of silence.   Many in the audience were “tricked” into applauding, but most held the applause, sensing from Sir Simon’s arms held in mid air that the piece was not over. Sure enough, the music began and went on for a while before the final rousing end. Everyone went home in a good mood.

In the first part of the concert, a versatile and exciting Canadian soprano (and an occasional conductor) Barbara Hannigan sang the Lonely Child for soprano and chamber orchestra composed by Claude Vivier, who was killed at 35 in 1983. The music featured mostly the percussions (bells) and strings, and decidedly modern in the tradition of Berg/Stockhausen.   Some of the passages played by strings reminded me of the music of Berg’s Bluebeard Castle.  Ms. Hannigan, ever a consummate artist, blended her pure and clear voice intimately with the musical instruments, and she indeed became one of the instruments. The French text, however, was mostly incomprehensible, not due to the singer’s fault but due to the nature of the music which was often high pitched with sudden and frequent changes in scale.

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