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The best recordings of Haydn's Cello Concertos 1 & 2

Charm and good humour are in plentiful supply, as Helen Wallace listens to and selects the finest recordings of Haydn at his effervescent best

The best recordings of Haydn Cello Concertos 1 & 2
Published: March 16, 2022 at 3:13 pm

Though well-loved today, these two ebullient cello cello concertos by Haydn were for long ‘sleeping beauties’ of the repertoire: the first was only unearthed by a librarian in Prague’s National Museum in 1961, the second was wrongly attributed to its dedicatee, Anton Kraft, until the Viennese autograph score was rediscovered in 1954.

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Both are so successfully scored, one can’t help wondering if regular performances wouldn’t have inspired Mozart and Beethoven to compose for cello and orchestra. The Concerto in C was probably written for cellist Joseph Weigl in Haydn’s early years as the Esterházy Court’s Kapellmeister and radiates good cheer. The more spacious, and more virtuosic, D major concerto (1783) has a grandly eloquent opening movement on a symphonic scale, and ends with a gently ornate rondo.

The best recordings of Haydn Cello Concertos 1 & 2

Steven Isserlis (cello)

Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Roger Norrington (1996)

Sony Masters 88697704462

Haydn's Cello concertos seem to bring out the best in musicians, which means few really poor recordings have been made. Whether a soloist adopts an 18th-century set-up of gut strings and Classical bow, or modern steel strings and high bridge, the scores seem to take wing, provided that the orchestra – just strings, with oboe and horns in the First Concerto, flute and bassoon added in the Second – is sufficiently small and lithe. Perhaps the solution is a compromise between ancient and modern, which can be found in Steven Isserlis’s (pictured) sparkling 1998 account on gut strings with the non-period instrument Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Roger Norrington.

Freshness and humour mark out these performances. Isserlis produces a wonderfully characterful, throaty sound, penetrating and sinewy, bringing to his part an impressive range of textures. Isserlis’s own cadenzas are irresistibly mischievous, delightfully and deftly given: one can’t help feeling Haydn would have approved. The D major Concerto was long known in a brutally edited 19th-century version by François-Auguste Gevaert. When, in the 1960s, original editions appeared, its first movement acquired a reputation for being too long and sluggish. Isserlis dispenses with such doubts, bringing a persuasive sense of direction to every one of its melting cantabile phrases. The Sinfonia Concertante in B flat makes up the programme, giving us a rounded picture of musical life at Esterházy.

Christoph Coin (cello)

Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood (1982)

Decca/L’Oiseau-Lyre 478 0025

Haydn’s concertante works have benefited hugely from the balance and lightness offered by period instruments and a less sustained approach to phrasing. These concertos need to seethe with vitality and grace, which is just what we get from the Academy of Ancient Music, playing at lower pitch than the others recommended here. The academy’s strings bring a crackling, fire-flecked texture, while Christoph Coin’s performance is informed by his expertise as a gamba player and Baroque cellist: a plangent singing line, glinting with high overtones; sparse use of vibrato; and crisply articulated bowing which has a violin-like delicacy. In each concerto he provides his own magnificently idiomatic and playful cadenzas complemented by two anonymous 18th-century ones in the finales.

Tatjana Vassiljeva (cello)

Orchestre Royal de Chambre de Wallonie/Augustin Dumay (2012)

Mirare MIR 220

Here is a reading of fleet elegance and luminous transparency by this young Russian cellist, supported by the limpid strings of Augustin Dumay’s chamber orchestra. Some may find Tatjana Vassiljeva’s approach lacking in virility, but her vivacious, unshowy performances are undeniably charming, and the slow movements are particularly touching. Her instrument, with a modern set-up, has a radiant upper register but a particularly dark-hued bass resonance adds to her range. She adopts new cadenzas by her colleague, pianist Jean-Frédéric Neuberger, in both concertos, which are witty without drawing unnecessary attention to themselves. The Allegro of the First Concerto is one of the fastest on record, and the first movement of the D major is given a tight focus, aided by a supple and intimate sense of ensemble.

Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)

Academy of St Martin in the Fields (1975)

EMI 678 7232

The legendary ‘big beast’ of the cello world is surprisingly light on his feet in these buoyant accounts, with scintillating support from the ASMF. He lends a penetrating muscularity to the line, and real heft to the double-stopping and lower strings, but his heroic style is driven by irrepressible high spirits rather than misplaced Romanticism. Both slow movements have an expressive weight sometimes missing from the more ‘authentic’ modern performances. Britten’s cadenzas in the Moderato of Concerto No. 1 have a weirdly Soviet flavour, while Rostropovich’s own in No. 2 is undistinguished. His octave passages in the finale of the latter are pretty murky, but other technical feats ably accomplished. An undeniably powerful performance.

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Authors

Helen WallaceArtistic and Executive Director, Kings Place

Helen Wallace is the Artistic and Executive Director of Kings Place, a concert hall in King's Cross, London, and the former editor of BBC Music Magazine and The Strad Magazine.

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