The Haydn concertos don't enjoy the popularity of the composer's symphonies, quartets or choral works. Only the Trumpet Concerto, two of the Cello Concertos, the Horn Concerto and one or two of the Keyboard Concertos are widely known. Received wisdom holds that most of these pieces are ignored because they lack the true virtuosic solo writing that other composers achieved in their concertos, and that is certainly a true observation. But it's also too bad, because many of Papa's concertos contain much fine and enjoyable music, even if no one would mistake a Haydn piano concerto for one of Mozart's late Viennese masterpieces.
Naxos does us a great service with this release, bringing together mostly sparkling performances of all the concertos in one attractive, budget-priced box. Music historians haven't definitively determined which Haydn Concertos are authentic and which are spurious, so don't expect this selection to include exactly the same material as rival sets. For reference, here's what you get (where instruments named in the 's are those used in these performances):
Disc 1: 3 Violin Concertos, in D (Hob.VIIa:1), in A (Hob.VIIa:3), in G (Hob.VIIa:4);
Disc 2: Horn Concerto, in D (Hob.VIId:3); Keyboard [Harpsichord] Concerto, in D (Hob.XVIII:2); Violin and Keyboard [Fortepiano] Concerto, in F (Hob.XVIII:6); and Trumpet Concerto, in E Flat (Hob.VIIe:1);
Disc 3: 3 Cello Concertos, in D (Hob.VIIb:2); in D (Hob.VIIb:4); and in C (Hob.VIIb:1);
Disc 4: 4 Keyboard [Pianoforte] Concertos, in F (Hob.XVIII:3); in D (Hob.XVIII:11); in G (Hob.XVIII:4); and in G (Hob.XVIII:9);
Disc 5: 5 Keyboard Concertos, in C (Hob.XVIII:1) [Organ]; in C (Hob.XVIII:5) [Harpsichord]; in C (Hob.XVIII:8) [Organ]; in F (Hob.XVIII:7) [Harpsichord]; and in C (Hob.XVIII:10) [Organ];
Disc 6: 5 Lire Organizzate Concertos, in C (Hob.VIIh:1) [2 Recorders]; in G (Hob.VIIh:2) [Flute and Oboe]; in G (Hob.VIIh:3) [2 Flutes]; in F (Hob.VIIh:4) [Flute and Oboe]; and in F (Hob.VIIh:5) [2 Recorders].
This box has several things going in its favor, and the best is the outstanding performances by the Cologne Chamber Orchestra under Helmut Mueller-Bruehl. (Don't good or great concerto performances always begin on the podium?) The orchestra plays on modern instruments in "historically informed" style. I've admired many of Mueller-Bruehl's Naxos releases, and in the music of Haydn, this maestro really "gets it". He knows how to play the rhythmic spring of an outer movement and how to caress the tender melody of an adagio. And the work is very consistent over the whole set, with few passages lagging.
Naxos has employed several mostly young but very talented soloists. They range from "adequate" to "outstanding". Of course, a few of them who play only in one or two earlier, less demanding works don't get much opportunity to really shine.
The string concertos fare especially well in this release. Augustin Hadelich is the superb soloist in the violin concertos. These normally neglected works are little gems, full of rollicking high spirits and joyous feelings. I couldn't stop tapping my toes while listening, and if I weren't a stodgy middle-aged coot trying to maintain a little dignity, I would have stood up and danced. The young soloist plays with gusto, verve and refinement. He also composed the excellent cadenzas. (By the way, he performs on a quite beautiful Stradivari of 1683, "ex-Gingold".)
The three cello concertos also stand out, even against their very stiff competition. Two of these are known to be by Haydn, one of them is suspect. But all contain worthwhile and sometimes great music. I didn't expect these recordings to offer much, given the available readings by other top-tier cellists, but Starker pupil and Rostropovich protégé Maria Kliegel, playing a beautiful Stradivari cello of 1693 ("ex-Gendron"), delivers sterling, rhapsodic readings, while Mueller-Bruehl plumbs the depths of Haydn's scores. Factoring in the total performance, not just the solos, I found this disc just as likeable as the Rostropovich or du Pre recordings.
Lacking space to review each performance, let me say that all the performances are enjoyable. In some of them, the soloists don't play with the authority of the most seasoned veterans, but still offer much delight. I already owned multiple recordings of all these concertos, but I'm still very glad to have this box, and I think you'll enjoy it too.
The set is packaged in a sturdy box, along with a 310 page booklet documenting Naxos's recordings of the complete symphonies, concertos, string quartets and piano sonatas of Haydn. You get track listings, essays on the music, artist bios, etc. (in English). A true bargain at the asking price.