Haydn and More Haydn...Joseph, that is
One-dimensional images and easy stereotypes are the currency of our dealings with classical music and classical musicians. Mozart is the boy prodigy; Beethoven, the tormented, deaf visionary; Bach the obscure wigged fellow who wrote that neat organ piece they play in horror flicks. In the same vein, Joseph Haydn is remembered as the long-lived "Father of the Symphony" who also penned the great oratorios "The Seasons" and "The Creation. "Yet Haydn's vocal works display a variety that challenges the preconceived notions. Haydn, despite his reputation, was a master of many genres.
Among the less remembered of Haydn's vocal works are the intimate English Canzonettas, simple setting of poems by Anne Hunter that prefigure the great lieder of Schubert and his contemporaries, and the cantata "Arianna a Naxos". These are coupled on a revelatory new disc from Virgin Classics' Veritas line (number 91215), with mezzosoprano Carolyn Watkinson and Glen Wilson at the fortepiano.
The lyrical cantata is an elegant corrective to the image of Haydn as the creator solely of grand tableaux, whether symphonic or choral. It is a masterpiece in minature (it only lasts, on this recording, 20 minutes and 14 seconds). The characterization found in the arias of Adam and Eve in the "Creation" is present, but is transformed into the unilateral statement of a powerful soliloquy. The music, which is set to a libretto of unknown authorship, accompanies Ariadne's discovery of her abandonment at the hands of Theseus.
The opening recitative depicts Ariadne's awakening on the beach at Naxos, and the swelling figure in the fortepiano is powerfully evocative of the rising of the "rosy dawn". They recall the opening bars of the "Creation" and their evocation of the primeval chaos. Glen Wilson's playing is tightly controlled here, and Carolyn Wilson's entry achieves the innocent tentativeness of a newly awakened victim of infidelity that Haydn's setting of the text seems to prescribe.
The cantata is composed of two sets of recitative and aria, following the progression of Ariadne's discovery of her plight and her subsequent expression of anguish and betrayal. Haydn paints Ariadne's psychological itinerary with bold figurations in the pianoforte accompaniment and extensive lyrical passages. The long recitatives are unusually developed musical and dramatic expressions. Wilson's playing demonstrates a sense for the maximization of the evocative possibilities in these passages without transgressing the bounds of bathos. Combining with Watkinson's unfailing vocal agility and expressive gusto, this wrings every ounce of dramatic potential out of Haydn's already amply suggestive recitatives. The overall effect is that of an opera in miniature, and the arias are reminiscent of Mozart's writing for the countess in the Marriage of Figaro.
The tender domesticity of the English Canzonettas contrasts with the broad sweep of the cantata, but Watkinson and Wilson still demonstrate their ability to exploit evocative possibilities in these short gems. The Canzonettas are fairly straightforward arrangements of strophic songs by an English poetess, accompanied by a setting of an excerpt from act II, scene 4 of Twelfth Night. Yet even if their tone is more modest than that of the cantata, their dramatic development is comparable. Haydn's delicate melody-lines are lovingly phrased by Watkinson, and Wilson audibly revels in the remarkably independent keyboard writing. The fortepiano passages contain moments of intense, near-pictorial portraiture, such as in the "Sailor's Song" and in "Fidelity," which speaks of "rushing winds" and the "tempests." There are also languid moments of introspection, most notably in the "Spirit's Song," "She Never Told her Love" (the setting of Shakespeare) and "The Wanderer."
The disc's sound is adequate if unspectacular. The heavily resonant acoustic of the Church in which the recording was made (St. Bartholemew's in Orford, Suffolk) seems inappropriate to the drawing-room setting for which the Canzonettas would originally have been destined. But this detracts only slightly from the overall listening experience. Watkinson's voice is splendid, negotiating passage that, originally written for castrati, are at times unsettlingly low. Wilson's accompaniment on the pianoforte rather than the modern piano is unexpected. However, right from the opening measures of the cantata, it seems to fit perfectly, illustrating ably the merits of performance on "period" instruments. Overall, this is a superb recording that sheds light on a relatively unknown facet of one of the giants of classical music.