Review: Classical: Roger Norrington's Haydn Paris Symphonies series

CLASSICAL Roger Norrington's Haydn Paris Symphonies series Royal Festival Hall, London
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Though Britten admired the music of Haydn, there's not much of a tangible link between these rather different composers. The strength of the London Philharmonic Orchestra's recent South Bank Haydn series, which has also featured Britten's work, must therefore lie in contrast. Late-starting and flowering Haydn, master of comedy, is compared with Britten, the gifted prodigy, whose story approached the furrowed, comet- like path of another genius, Mozart.

And therein lies the historical dialectic that has made these programmes so intriguing. In choosing vocal works to spar against Haydn symphonies, conductor Roger Norrington certainly whetted the audience's appetite. But the essential contrast is between the forces of nurture and nature, the matrix of creativity that in the different lives of Haydn and Mozart is seen in emblematic form. For Mozart read Britten and you have a link with the 20th century, making Haydn modern too. That's been Norrington's trump in this series of authentic readings: to make "Papa Haydn" seem a strikingly contemporary figure.

This was no less the case on Monday at the Festival Hall when soprano Felicity Lott sang the Quatre Chansons Francaises of 1928, songs of astounding confidence written when Britten was only 14. They used a wide range of orchestral colours to telling effect, and Lott responded with a warm, seductive vocal sound. Choosing his texts with prescient judgement, the composer found poems allied to his later preoccupations. Hugo's L'Enfance touched on the theme of sullied innocence; in the case of Verlaine's Sagesse, it was clear the song existed in order to colour the dramatic innuendo of its ending. The inclusion after the interval of four French Folk Songs of 1942 confirmed the impression of complete mastery. True, Lott's flirtatious rendition won plaudits for its own sake, and rightly so. But in the skill and tact of the arrangements, it was the composer who dealt her the master cards.

In contrast, Haydn's Symphonies No 87 in A and No 86 in D, last of the "Paris" collection to be included in this series, were the works of a late developer. Yet, as Norrington observed, they were also deeply subversive. With his left-wing leanings, Britten practised the art of subversion in a tolerably liberal democracy. Haydn, the wheelwright's son, was a musical democrat whose wares were imported to the heart of the ancien regime.

The proof lay in these performances, whose freshness touched the egalitarian essence of Haydn's symphonic form. The obsessive drive of the A major Symphony was compelling; so too the daring play of opposites in the D major piece, whether in the sonata first movement, or between the following Capriccio and minuet. In its way this was modern music, brought to the present through musical authenticity and Haydn's unique personality. And yet Norrington was only partly correct when earlier he'd said there was too much Haydn ever to know it all. The mystery of Haydn is as much a matter of quality. A self-taught, protean artist, he was forever inventing himself. The challenge for each generation, reflecting itself in his music, is to reinvent it anew.