Haydn: Symphony No. 91; Symphony No. 92; Scena di Bernice

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LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Symphony No. 91; Symphony No. 92; Scena di Bernice
PERFORMER: Bernarda Fink; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Rene Jacobs
Symphony No. 92, performed in Oxford when Haydn received his honorary doctorate there in 1791, is one of his most dazzling symphonies; in the middle section of its otherwise serene slow movement, trumpets and drums make a dramatic entrance in a passage that foreshadows the bellicose sounds of the Nelson Mass. More mellow, and less well known, is the E flat Symphony No. 91, with its brilliant contrapuntal opening Allegro; but perhaps greater than either is the absurdly neglected Scena di Berenice – a vivid depiction of Berenice driven to distraction by the death of her lover, Demetrio. Haydn composed it in 1795 for the famous soprano Brigida Banti, though he was disappointed by her performance: ‘She song very scanty’ was his wry comment in his own pidgin-English.


No one could accuse Bernarda Fink of singing scantily: hers is an admirably rich and full voice, and she performs the piece with intense passion. Only in the smouldering final F minor aria does she lack the wild despair that Cecila Bartoli brings to the piece. Bartoli’s performance is available on a DVD that also contains a lively account of the Oxford Symphony with the Vienna Concentus Musicus under Harnoncourt. René Jacobs’s performances are full of vitality and personality, too, though with occasional extremes of tempo and dynamic contrasts. The furious account of the minuet of No. 91 is a long way from the ‘poco allegretto’ Haydn asks for, but the whirlwind ‘presto’ finale of the Oxford is irresistible, and the Freiburg Baroque orchestra dispatches it brilliantly. Misha Donat