From a Washington Post review of Mark Minkowski’s new recording of Haydn’s London Symphonies, on the Naive recording:

Want to be surprised by No. 94, the “Surprise”? Minkowski borrows a joke from the Hoffnung Music Festivals of 50 years ago: When it is time for the famous fortissimo, the orchestra delivers exactly — nothing. And that really is a surprise, although not the one Haydn intended. So Minkowski plays the lead-in to the “surprise” again, and this time the orchestra shouts instead of playing. Only on the third go-round does the music proceed as expected.

Here we see — once more — classical music adapting to the present day. One issue, and I think it comes up more often than it’s acknowledged to, is how the old masterworks can make their intended effect. Here Haydn wanted to surprise his audience, with a sudden loud chord in the middle of softer music.

But now everyone knows the piece, and — if truth be told — orchestras aren’t likely to make the chord surprising, because the whole idea of surprise doesn’t often enter our concert halls, either in the seats where the audience sits, or on stage

So Minkowksi, for better or worse — I haven’t heard the recording — but at least for something, decides to play some games with this. I take this to be more or less a meta game, the goal being not simply to surprise us, but to amuse us by doing something new when we don’t expect to be surprised. The trick is self-referential, which it pretty much has to be, because just about all performances of the old masterworks are — in our time — by nature self-referential.

A tired old issue: How dare we change the notes Haydn wrote? Isn’t our job to realize his intentions? Even assuming that was true (and I think — speaking as a composer myself — that it’s a very limited idea of what performance is), Haydn’s most important intention here was the surprise. The notes are only his way of achieving it. So if the notes no longer can surprise us…do we really honor his intentions by stubbornly playing exactly what he wrote?

(And by the way, that review isn’t by my wife, Anne Midgette, the Post‘s classical music critic. It’s by a freelance writer, Mark Estren.)

Added later: I’ve got the recording now, and I’ll be eager to hear it.

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  1. Bill in Dallas says

    Well, perhaps the surprise might be more of a surprise for modern audiences if it were not LABELED “Surprise” in the program! Seeing only Haydn and the number 96 frankly would not trigger the alert for me, and I have heard the piece dozens of times.

    For that matter, did Haydn label it SURPRISE? or who did, and when?

    Bill in Dallas