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What was Haydn up to in his symphonies of the early 1780s? Even by his idiosyncratic standards, they exhibit a bizarre juxtaposition of styles – Sturm und Drang with galant, the learned with the popular. Sometimes these contrasting styles even jostle together in the same movement, most strikingly in no. 80’s ‘Allegro spiritoso’, where the dark, turbulent opening is gradually dispelled by a lilting Ländler tune that keeps wandering in to spread sweetness and light!

These symphonies have divided critical opinion, none more sharply than no. 80: Rosemary Hughes, for instance, calls it ‘a stormy, unsatisfactory’ piece that appears ‘curiously unsettled’, while for A. Peter Brown it’s ‘an unrecognised masterpiece ... an extraordinary symphony that finds coherence in its diversity.’ It sounds close to a masterpiece on this fine two-CD set by Ottavio Dantone and Accademia Bizantina. Their lithe performances of all four symphonies, purposeful yet sensitive, are among the best available, and the first on period instruments of nos. 79 and 81. The rarely recorded no. 81 comes across as another near- masterpiece, helped by Dantone’s subtle shaping of its dynamic outer movements and his tender handling of the Andante’s charming siciliano variations.

Dantone ticks all the HIP boxes: he observes repeats, eschews harpsichord continuo, and employs an orchestra similar in size to the Esterházy forces of the period. He’s also alert to Haydn’s genius for comic timing, as in no. 80’s madcap Finale—its syncopated scamperings are so tricksy one writer has even claimed it ‘reinvents Sturm und Drang as a joke.’

Graham Lock Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing