When Pierre Boulez became music director of the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s, he refused to conduct Mozart, inserting Haydn instead. It did no good for Haydn. The Mozart lovers deserted in droves, while the cerebral types that Boulez hoped to attract were dismayed to find just as much frivolity in Papa Haydn as in the trivial Amadeus. Haydn’s reputation has taken years to recover.
The instant appeal of this recording is that it contains not just two well-known Haydn concertos but three extra pieces that complement and contextualise them. The second benefit is that Steven Isserlis’s performance with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen avoids both period-instrument excesses and superannuated New York Phil sound to hit a middle way that is both authentic to Haydn and agreeable to modern ears.
The first Haydn concerto, written in 1760s Esterhazy, make no more than moderate demands of a provincial group of musicians while allowing them to sound superb. The second, composed twenty years later in Vienna, is mature and expressive, with an inbuilt swagger. Haydn’s understanding of musical life at all levels is nowhere more in evidence. He just loved musicians. Isserlis, who wrote the cadenzas for both works and plays with sunny warmth, sounds like he’s having a ball. Like Haydn, he relishes leading a small orchestra.
The supplementary works are Isserlis’s setting of a Mozart aria from La finta giardiniera, a Boccherini adagio that almosts tops the clock and a middle-period concerto by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, infused with added melancholy. Haydn’s influence is heard throughout. He is the composer to whom all others look for structure.