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Symphony No 39 in G minor, Hob I:39

composer

 
We will probably never know the exact chronology and dating of all of Haydn’s symphonies. In the absence of precise information about many of the earlier symphonies in particular, much needs to be left to well-informed conjecture, and scholars continue to disagree and shift the emphasis of received opinion. The Symphony No 39 in G minor cannot be dated with any certainty, but is thought to have been written between May and September 1765, thus predating No 26 and making it the earliest of Haydn’s magnificent ‘Sturm und Drang’ minor-key symphonies.

Franz Joseph Haydn was born on 31 March 1732 in Rohrau, Lower Austria. In 1740 he went to Vienna, where he stayed for over twenty years, singing in the choir of St Stephen’s Cathedral until about 1749. In the late 1750s he received his first proper appointment, as music director to Count Morzin, and it was for Morzin’s small ensemble of musicians that he wrote his first fifteen or so symphonies.

On 1 May 1761 Haydn was appointed Vice-Kapellmeister to Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, the profligate Count Morzin having squandered his entire fortune and disbanded his orchestra. The Esterházys were the wealthiest and most influential family of the Hungarian nobility. Their main residence was in Eisenstadt—a small town twenty-six miles south-east of Vienna—and they had long been important patrons of culture and the arts. Although Prince Paul Anton died within a year of Haydn’s appointment, he was succeeded by his brother Nikolaus, who was an even more enthusiastic and accomplished musician than his brother. Nikolaus was to be an enlightened and inspirational benefactor for Haydn for the next twenty-eight years. Although the long-standing and rapidly ageing Kapellmeister Gregor Werner retained responsibility for the provision of church music until his death in 1766, Haydn was put in charge of all other musical activities and requirements, and had an outstanding orchestra at his disposal.

Little is known of Haydn’s daily routine during these early years in Eisenstadt, although his contract required him to appear at court every morning and afternoon to see if music was desired, and we also know that concerts were given regularly on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Most of the music he composed between 1761 and 1765 was instrumental: approximately eighteen symphonies—beginning with the remarkable trilogy, Nos 6-8—nine or ten concertos, many of which are lost, and various divertimenti, minuets and other dances. If the Symphony No 39 is in many respects typical of the music of this period in Haydn’s career, it also marks an important and dynamic new departure.

It is clear from the very outset that this is to be no ordinary symphony. It starts in a hushed whisper—already a bold and highly unusual statement at the time—and the repeated quavers with which violas, cellos and double basses underpin the violins’ opening figure immediately generate a febrile and expectant intensity. The sense of disquiet is heightened by the interpolation of sudden silences, so that when the orchestra finally launches into a full forte it comes as an abrupt shock. In truth, Haydn had employed the same bag of tricks—playing with sudden contrasts, setting up and then quashing our expectations—to make many of his previous compositions so wonderfully impish, witty and unpredictable, but here these effects are focused almost exclusively on evoking a mood of brooding anxiety and unease.

The lilting andante that follows is set in the key of E flat major, but this only partially alleviates the tension of the opening movement. It is scored solely for strings, which for much of the time are divided into just two parts—a violin melody and an accompanying bass line; only in the final six bars does the texture extend into a full four parts, and even then it is tinged with an air of reflective regret.

With the ensuing minuet we are plunged back into the anguished pathos of G minor for another ‘valse triste’, full of chromatic conflict and wailing lament. Again a sense of loneliness and vulnerability is achieved through the angularity of the largely two-part texture, although oboes and horns are now reincorporated and the melody is enriched by having the 2nd violins doubling the 1st violins an octave lower. Brief respite is provided in the trio section, which slips into the major key and features some translucently high horn writing, but the finale returns to the restless intensity of the first movement, wide leaps, tremolando accompaniments, cascading scales and sudden dynamic contrasts all to the fore as the music hurtles towards a breathlessly agitated conclusion.

from notes by Ian Page © 2020

Recordings

Sturm und Drang, Vol. 2
Studio Master: SIGCD636Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Movement 1: Allegro assai
Movement 2: Andante
Movement 3: Menuet e Trio
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro di molto

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