OAE / European Voices /Rattle, Royal Festival Hall, London

Two sides of Haydn
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The Independent Culture

There is something slyly enigmatic about Haydn's Symphony No 67 in F major (1778). The very opening of the first movement with a hop, skip and a jump sounds more like your average Haydn finale. The centre of the slow movement is a hushed canon for first and second violins alone, and its coda features the dry tapping of strings with the wood of the bows, while the trio of the minuet is a folkloric skirl for just two solo violins. As for the finale proper, it is suddenly interrupted by a long, expressive and delectably scored slow middle section on completely different material.

There is something slyly enigmatic about Haydn's Symphony No 67 in F major (1778). The very opening of the first movement with a hop, skip and a jump sounds more like your average Haydn finale. The centre of the slow movement is a hushed canon for first and second violins alone, and its coda features the dry tapping of strings with the wood of the bows, while the trio of the minuet is a folkloric skirl for just two solo violins. As for the finale proper, it is suddenly interrupted by a long, expressive and delectably scored slow middle section on completely different material.

Whatever it all means, Sir Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment doubtless chose it to open this final Royal Festival Hall concert in their Haydn: The Creative Genius season, as a quirky foil to the last and ripest of the six great symphonic Mass settings that crowned Haydn's creative career. The precipitate tempo with which Rattle contrived to fuse the first movement - second-half repeat and all - into a single sweep occasionally overrode definition of detail. Yet the muted, crepuscular slow movement was quite mesmeric: perfectly poised and paced, with the most exquisitely nuanced lines from the OEA strings.

The performance of the Mass in B flat major (1802) - the Harmoniemess or "Wind Band Mass", so called for the richness of its orchestration - was pretty special, too. But then one would never guess from its majestically unfolding paragraphs that this was the product of a 70-year- old composer whose health and powers of concentration were rapidly giving way after decades of overwork, and that it was destined to remain his last complete work.

Rattle's powerful sway over the opening of the slow, sonata-form Kyrie and the incisive impact of Simon Halsey's well-balanced European Voices on their surprise first entry immediately established the authority of the reading. And although Haydn uses his four soloists less for extended numbers than as points and contrasts of colour within the whole, the mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham was especially eloquent in the "Gratias agimus" section of the Gloria.

Most of all, the performance reminded one of Rattle's exceptional instinct for long-term harmonic rhythm; for placing and giving due weight to the major harmonic pillars and turning-points underlying a structure, while lavishing the most spontaneous attention on the moment-to-moment detail on its surface - a kind of polymetric, contrapuntal gift possessed by only the most musical conductors. Twice, he risked headlong tempi, in Haydn's slightly flighty Benedictus and the final, charging "Dona nobis pacem", but the packed hall was with him all the way.

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