...It's a joy from start to finish, and I've never felt this close to Haydn in these...
John Armstrong 2002
Haydn's answer to Vivaldi's Four Seasons? It's possible; his employer Prince Esterhazy seems to have had a penchant for programme music, and the court library contained a score of the Vivaldi, as well as a musical calendar of the months of the year written by one of Haydn's predecessors.
So, it's quite likely the Prince commissioned his new Kapellmeister to produce this trio of symphonies based on the times of the day. A very early commission as well: these symphonies are from Haydn's first year with the Prince, and they're different from his other early symphonies, with more opportunities for soloists to shine within the orchestra, much more like the baroque concerto grosso. Maybe Haydn wanted to show off the new musicians he'd been recruiting for the Prince - and there are quite a few long violin solos, reminding us that Haydn liked to lead the Esterhazy orchestra from the concert master's chair; he was writing for himself.
So when it comes to a period instrument performance of Le Matin, Le Midi and Le Soir, it makes sense to follow the composer's example, and have the concert master direct the performance from the front desk of the violins - and that's exactly how the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra likes to work. They're used to it, and it sounds like it...but what difference does it make to the performance, not having an ego with a stick standing in front of the band? Well, it feels as though this is an orchestra that listens to itself; there's something organic about their performances, you almost feel them breathing together as they open their ears to one another in a way they might not with a conductor.
When it comes to the sections for the soloists, this really sounds like chamber music - and it sits more naturally with the sections for full orchestra, again I suspect because everyone is concentrating the way chamber musicians do.
Okay, you're thinking, but these might turn out to be characterless performances without the single guiding vision of a conductor; readings created by committee in effect. You couldn't be more wrong; there's a natural, unforced aspect to it right enough, but real unanimity of tempo, tuning and phrasing, and so much character comes from Haydn's featured soloists: the elegant violin playing of leader Petra Müllejans, the rasping (natural) horns, the fluid flute solos and abrasive bassoon.
It's a joy from start to finish, and I've never felt this close to Haydn in these famous early symphonies before. The Freiburgers deserve to sell shed-loads of this...and I hope no-one will be put off because there isn't a well-known conductor or music-director on the cover. Ego-less entertainment, highly recommended.
Andrew McGregor - presenter of CD Review on Radio 3