Yes, a surprise

I posted a little while ago about a recording of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, as reviewed in the Washington Post. At the surprise — the sudden loud chord in the second movement — unexpected things happen.

Now I’ve heard the recording — part of a four-CD set of all Haydn’s London symphonies, conducted by Marc Minkowski — and it’s even more fun than the review suggested.

Here’s what happens. The slow movement, as Haydn wrote it, begins with the simplest of melodies, played very quietly. (And on this recording, it really is quiet.) The melody is then repeated, but at the end comes something we didn’t hear the first time, a very loud chord. Surprise!

Except that in our time, it’s not a surprise anymore. But in this performance — recorded live — when it’s time for the chord, there’s just a tapping sound. And then silence.

Then the melody starts again. It plays just once. We’ve now departed pretty definitely from Haydn’s, repeating music he didn’t tell us to repeat. And the surprise this time, where the chord would come, is that the orchestra shouts. Loudly. The audience laughs, with what sounds like real delight.

Then the melody starts again. This third time, we do hear the chord, and it’s explosively loud. One problem with many orchestra performances — and especially in music from the classical period, where contrasts of loud and soft are really important — is that loud and soft don’t sound very different. Not here.

After the chord, the music goes on, continuing exactly as Haydn wrote it, with no further deviations, right to the end of the movement. For a while I listened with refreshed ears. But then I sank into the familiar non-expectation with which I listen to so many performances of standard repertoire. I know the music. The performance sounds fine, but it doesn’t show me anything.

I thought Minkowski and his orchestra — Les Musiciens du Louvre — should have added one more surprise. Right near the end of the movement, there’s a diminished seventh chord, a perfect moment to introduce a cadenza. Haydn didn’t write one, but he didn’t write the shout or the silence. I thought a few seconds of whispering, maybe, from the musicians would have made a nice return to surprise. And then the movement could finish normally.

I’ve listened to the rest of the symphony, and to one of the other ones, No. 98 in B flat. No surprises. Fine performances, but nothing new.

But the adventure in the surprise movement is a lot of fun. I’ve uploaded it, and you can here it here. (Keep your volume down around 50%. The recording has a wide dynamic range, and the loud bits are loud.)

(Someone, maybe, will say that the surprise — by repeating music Haydn didn’t say to repeat — destroys the proportions of the movement. Well, duh. Of course it does. But because something new is added, the proportions have to change. And now if anything it’s the rest of the movement that sounds out of proportion, because we keep wondering, or at least I do, whether anything else that’s new will happen.)

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  1. says

    My orchestra had a similar experience with another of Haydn’s musical jokes this season. Mark Wigglesworth was conducting, and he sold the bit more convincingly than any conductor I’ve ever seen… and then managed to fool the audience a second time. I blogged about it (and posted video of the key moments) here:

    Terrific, Sam. Thanks so much for sharing it. I hope many readers will follow the link, and see and hear what happened. Seems like a terrific performance, too, by Wigglesworth and your orchestra. (The Minnesota Orchestra.)