But judging from the London Philharmonic's South Bank Haydn Festival, Haydn's symphonies have at last found a popular champion. Roger Norrington's performances of Nos 82-85 were some of the most refreshing things I've heard in the Festival Hall for quite some time. Teaching "period" performing styles to modern orchestras - sprightly, dancing tempos, sharp, clear articulation, sparing use of vibrato - necessarily involves an element of compromise. But when the results are as alive and compelling as this, who cares? At one point in the finale of No 82, nicknamed "The Bear", people in the audience were actually laughing - not the forced, "Aren't I clever?" laughter of the opera house, but the real thing.
One reason for the success lies in Norrington's unique style of presentation. Each symphony was introduced by a short speech - wittily alerting listeners to the character and intellectual brilliance of the music with almost no use of technical jargon. And Norrington's conducting style is a classic illustration of the idea that a conductor's gestures can help the listener as much as the players. As he points to sections of the orchestra, details actually sound clearer. As Haydn prepares one of his most cunning surprises, Norrington winks at the audience - and instantly we're all in on the joke. His smiles are for our benefit, as much as for the players.
Orchestras tend to be suspicious of anything that looks like exhibitionism - and rightly. But the London Philharmonic evidently enjoyed Norrington's conducting as much as we in the auditorium did. The playing was alert, precise, and responsive to every minute change in the music's character and colour. Nielsen said of his Sinfonia Semplice that he "thought" through the instruments, "as though I had crept inside them". After a Norrington performance, one can imagine Haydn saying the same thing. Solo flute, bassoons, violins, solo cello are like characters in a comedy, alternately seducing, mimicking and subverting each other. High sophistication and earthy humour follow each other with breathtaking rapidity. What Haydn is doing, Norrington argued, is "democratising" music, just as Mozart did in The Marriage of Figaro. Listening to his performances, you could see what he meant.
In these first two concerts, Norrington also included two vocal works by Benjamin Britten: Phaedra and Nocturne. Britten admired Haydn and, like Haydn, he is a supremely practical composer, but their music inhabits different worlds. Both works made excellent contrasts - again, splendidly played and directed, and with stirring solo performances by, respectively, Sarah Walker and Neil Jenkins.
Haydn's Symphonies Nos 84 & 85 and Britten's `Phaedra' are repeated tonight, 7.30pm, RFH, London SE1 (0171-546 1666)Reuse content