, July 2001
In 1761 Haydn entered the service of the Esterházy family, and he remained in their full-time employment for thirty years. In the first years of this service he had charge of an orchestra which probably comprised at least six violins, three violas, three cellos and two double-basses, together with pairs of oboes and horns, other instruments being added on an occasional basis, as required.
His relationship with the Esterházy establishment enabled Haydn to develop the range of his creative work, and he viewed his relative isolation at the court in positive terms: 'I was cut off, and I was therefore forced to become original.' For although Haydn did not invent the symphony, it was he more than any other composer who nurtured and developed the genre from its infancy to the full glories of the mature classical style.
This collection of three symphonies date from the middle years of the 1860s, by which time Haydn was already an experienced hand at his symphonic craft. For evidence of this one need look no further than the opening of Symphony No. 27, which begins the programme. For this is a crescendo, of the style generally associated with the Mannheim composers under the title 'Rocket'. The Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia, who acquit themselves with distinction throughout, immediately set the agenda with a well controlled crescendo and string tremolandi at fever pitch. The recording is also helpful in communicating this message. With nicely registered balances which allow Haydn's details within the texture to come through.
In earlier Haydn the use of harpsichord continuo is always a point of contention, and each of these three symphonies gains from its deployment here. The Siciliano which forms the slow movement of No. 27 is particularly well balanced in this respect, a model of taste and refinement.
If Béla Drahos has problems sustaining the interest in the Poco adagio slow movement of Symphony No. 28 he is not alone, since the movement is a little long for its material. Of recorded performances, Antál Dorati's with the Philharmonia Hungarica (now only available as part of a huge collection of the complete symphonies on Decca) is as successful as any. But there are no problems with Drahos's interpretation of the remainder of the work, not least in the rhythmically taut first movement, which is particularly exciting.
The best known of these works is the Symphony No. 31, known as the 'Horn Signal' on account of its fanfare for four hunting horns, which opens the work in impressive style. In fact the horn writing throughout is complex and daring, and four instruments are used. The opening gesture of this performance is impressive, with well chosen tempi which encourage the momentum and vitality of the music to flow naturally out of the introductory horn call. In truth this stirring call is more than mere introduction, since it recurs as the music proceeds, ingeniously worked into the musical fabric. Other instruments have the chance to shine too, and the first flute makes some splendid contributes.
The same might also be said of the Adagio, an extensive slow movement in which the orchestral leader has a concertante role. At this unequivocally slow tempo, the quality of playing and sound is put more under the microscope, so to speak, and here as elsewhere Haydn's imaginative scoring benefits from the standards achieved by this ensemble. For this is a highly enjoyable disc of three of the most engaging of Haydn's earlier symphonies.