Birth of the Symphony: Handel to Haydn

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COMPOSERS: Handel; Haydn; Mozart; Richter and Stamitz
ALBUM TITLE: Birth of the Symphony: Handel to Haydn
WORKS: Symphonies & Sinfonias
PERFORMER: Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr


This first offering of the Academy of Ancient Music’s new own label is a striking success. Expertly led by the harpsichordist Richard Egarr, current musical director, and superbly played, it programmes an attractive selection of symphonies by five 18th-century composers to illustrate the title – Birth of the Symphony. A broad understanding of the term ‘symphony’ is required given the time range (1738-68) and composer choice. Perhaps three of the items  – Handel’s oratorio introduction, a three-movement work by Stamitz, renowned for his four-movement symphonies, and a Haydn symphony that HC Robbins Landon once deemed ‘the very last of the old church sonata symphonies’ – don’t illustrate the idea quite as academically as pedants might like.

Yet the contents prove enjoyable both in sequence and as historical display case. The court at Mannheim, early home base for symphonic development, employed both Stamitz and Richter, whose Symphony is almost a compendium of the skyrocketing motivic material by which the ‘Mannheim School’ is frequently caricatured. Mozart knew and admired them both: with his own Symphony No. 1, albeit the product of an eight-year-old, the musical range undergoes an extraordinary enrichment.

And in Haydn’s Passion Symphony (No. 49, of 1768), peak achievement of his ‘Sturm und Drang’ period, a new world of emotional and aesthetic sensibility is opened up. Egarr’s interpretation, less demonstrative than, say, Ton Koopman’s or Trevor Pinnock’s, is attentive to dynamic contrast and a fitting climax to this recording.


Max Loppert