Dallas — As all well-informed music-lovers know, Haydn and Bach belong in separate chapters of music history. It was thus a little puzzling to learn of the Dallas Bach Society’s plans for an all-Haydn concert, featuring the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies of that composer. However, the concert, which took place Saturday night at Church of the Incarnation, demonstrated the strength of the concept, pointing in a direction the society and music director James Richman will hopefully pursue from time to time in the future.
The Bach Society, which focuses on use of authentic instruments and reproductions from the age of Bach, as well as historically informed performance practice, has often and successfully presented, along with many works of Bach himself, music of his contemporaries—the annual production of Handel’s Messiah being but one well-known example. Here, with slight modulation of performance practice, under the guidance of artistic director James Richman and his generally astounding knowledge of historical performance practice, the Bach Society presented an opportunity to hear early Haydn in a form as nearly duplicating the performances in Haydn’s day as is possible in 2016.
Haydn was already 18 years old when Bach died in 1750, and the ensemble he had access to when he wrote this triptych of symphonies in 1761 was much closer to the orchestra of Bach’s final years than either the orchestras of today or, for that matter, the orchestra of Haydn’s later years.
In this case, that means a very small orchestra of 15, including six violins, two flutes, two horns, and two oboes, only one each of cello, bassoon, viola, and bass. Played on authentic 18th-century instruments, in authentic 18th-century style (circa 1761), the resulting sound is lean, translucent, and by turn radiantly light and strikingly dark—equal to in effect but quite different from the manner of romantic and modern music.
Nicknamed (not by Haydn) Le matin, Le midi, and Le soir (“Morning,” “Midday,” and “Evening”), this trio of four-movement works offers a glimpse of a fully developed musical genius who, nevertheless, is constantly experimenting with form and structure—sometimes reaching back to the baroque and more often glimpsing into the future. For instance, the slow introduction we associate with Haydn’s later symphonies appears as a musical sunrise in No. 6; he adds an urbane majesty to that concept in No. 7, but totally skips the slow introduction in No. 8.
The dance-like energy that pervades much of Haydn’s mammoth output is frequently present, and the sense of convivial personality—one area in which Haydn absolutely surpasses both Beethoven and Mozart—is evident in full force in all three works. In contrast to most of his later symphonies, in which he emphasizes a more homogenous symphonic effect, Haydn here assigns some astoundingly virtuosic solo work to all principals: even the bass player (Randy Inman) has his moments in the spotlight here, and concertmaster James Andrewes had a task surpassing that of a concerto soloist in the frequent virtuoso solos assigned to his role.
All principals assigned solos performed admirably, and conductor Richman and the orchestra maneuvered this unique re-creation of a musical performance at the estate of Haydn’s wealthy, music-loving Hungarian patron winningly, revealing, through historically authentic performance, rare insight into often overlooked aspects of Haydn’s genius.