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Top 10 Haydn CDs for Your Classical Music Collection

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is, with Mozart and Beethoven, one of the three masters of the Viennese Classical style. Haydn is known as the "Father of the Symphony" and the "Father of the String Quartet" for his immense contributions to the development of those two genres, but he also composed operas, concertos, keyboard sonatas and trios, masses, and songs. His music displays grace and elegance and is marked throughout by an abundance of wit. Haydn knew better than anyone else how to use silence for dramatic (and sometimes melodramatic) effect, and his music is full of amusing surprises. Haydn's music was immensely popular in the composer's day and has never since fallen out of favor.

Haydn had some formal music training, but until the age of thirty he made his way in Vienna as a freelance musician and teacher. In 1761 he entered the service of Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, head of a wealthy and powerful Hungarian family. Haydn spent nearly thirty years at the Esterházy court, where he composed symphonies, operas, and chamber music for the Prince's musicians. In the 1780s and 1790s Haydn expanded his horizons, traveling to Paris and making two immensely popular visits to London. In the late 1790s Haydn returned to the Esterházy estate, where his duties were light. During these last years his focus shifted from secular to religious and from sacred to choral. Haydn's health began to decline around 1800, and he was forced to stop composing in 1803. He died quietly in Vienna in 1809, just after Napoleon's armies had captured the city.

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1 Symphonies Nos. 103, 104 -- Richard Hickox
Stunning successes in London. Review...

2 Lord Nelson Mass -- David Willcocks
A joyous celebration of life. Review...
3 String Quartets Op. 76 -- Lindsay String Quartet
The pinnacle of Haydn's chamber music. Review...

4 Symphony No. 45, "Farewell" -- Roy Goodman
A stormy symphony with an interesting twist at the end. Review...

5 The Creation -- Fritz Wunderlich, Herbert von Karajan
A musical illustration of the first seven days. Review...

6 "London" Symphonies -- Sir Colin Davis
A selection of Haydn's final masterpieces. Review...

7 String Quartets Op. 33 -- Lindsay String Quartet
Quartets composed in a "new and special way." Review...

8 Piano Sonatas -- András Schiff
Neglected works comparable to Mozart's best. Review...

9 Trumpet Concerto -- Wynton Marsalis, Raymond Leppard
A jazz all-star takes on the Classical world. Review...

10 "Paris" Symphonies -- Antál Dorati
Works that made Haydn beloved to French audiences -- even the queen. Review...

11 Piano Trios -- Beths, Bylsma, Levin
Chamber music that bridges the gap from Baroque to Beethoven. Review...


Symphony No. 103 in E-flat major, "Drumroll"; Symphony No. 104 in D major, "London"

Collegium Musicum 90, Richard Hickox, conductor

When Haydn traveled to England in 1791, he was hailed there as "the greatest composer in the world." He had been invited to compose and conduct a set of six symphonies for public performance, and he was determined that these works should live up to the advance billing. Indeed they did, and the British public were so grateful that he was asked to come back a few years later and write another set of six symphonies. The final two, Nos. 103 and 104, are Haydn's crowning achievements in the genre. They summarize everything Haydn had learned about the craft of composition, and they include some of the composer's most memorable melodies. The "Drumroll" symphony gets its name from the percussionist's part at the beginning, and is also notable for incorporating Croatian melodies remembered from Haydn's youth. The "London" symphony begins with a stately fanfare and then bursts into a sunny Allegro, and its final movement features a catchy folklike melody. Richard Hickox gives a sparkling performance on the CD which also includes the Symphony No. 95.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Mass No. 11 in D minor, "Lord Nelson Mass"
Sylvia Stahlman, soprano; Helen Watts, alto; Wilfred Brown, tenor; Tom Krause, baritone; London Symphony Orchestra, Cambridge King's College Choir, David Willcocks, conductor

Though Haydn is often cited as the "father of the symphony" and the "father of the string quartet," his great sacred choral works are at least the equal of anything he wrote in a purely instrumental genre. Haydn wrote this mass in 1798 and gave it the title "Missa in Angustiis," or "Mass in Fear," which probably reflected the feelings of Haydn's fellow Austrians as Napoleon's armies were beginning their conquest of Europe. The mass acquired its more popular name after if was played for Lord Nelson, the hero of the Battle of the Nile, in 1800. Despite Haydn's ominous title, the mass expresses joy throughout, as it gloriously reaffirms Haydn's relationship with God. David Willcocks leads a superb cast of soloists in this recording that revolutionized the performance of Haydn's choral works. For an even more "authentic" feel, Trevor Pinnock's recording -- featuring instruments of Haydn's time -- is not to be missed.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
String Quartets, Op. 76 (Nos. 1-3, Nos. 4-6)
Lindsay String Quartet

These quartets represent the pinnacle of Haydn's chamber writing, and demonstrate why Haydn deserves to be the "Father of the String Quartet" just as much as he is "Father of the Symphony." One of the most exciting is the second quartet, nicknamed "Fifths" from the musical interval that makes up the first movement's theme. The slow movement of the third quartet is a set of variations on the song "God Save Emperor Franz," which has since become the German national anthem and also gives the quartet its nickname, "Emperor." The fourth quartet is nicknamed "Sunrise" after its introduction, which features a rising violin line. Though it has no nickname, the sixth is perhaps most inventive of them all, with a "Fantasia" slow movement that contains numerous harmonic surprises. The Lindsay Quartet are today's foremost Haydn interpreters, and their performances of these quartets demonstrate why this is so.

Similar works: Top 10 String Quartets
Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor, "Farewell"
Hanover Band, Roy Goodman, conductor

In the summer of 1772, Haydn's employer Prince Esterházy remained a bit longer than usual at his summer palace. Wanting to get back to their families, the musicians became a bit restless, and Haydn decided to give the prince a hint that it was time to go. After a fiery final movement, the tempo slows down, and one by one each group of instruments concludes its part and leaves; only two violins are left to play the final measures. Though this final part is slow, the symphony is stormy throughout and is characteristic of Haydn's so-called "Sturm und Drang" ("Storm and Stress") period. Trevor Pinnock offers the best available recording of this and eighteen other "Sturm und Drang" symphonies, but for an affordable option it's hard to go wrong with Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
The Creation
Gundula Janowitz, soprano; Christa Ludwig, mezzo soprano; Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Walter Berry, bass baritone; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna Singverein, Herbert von Karajan, conductor

This oratorio (a dramatic work that is not staged) tells the story of the creation, based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton's Paradise Lost. Throughout, Haydn uses instrumental effects to illustrate the story, such as a murky and dissonant texture illustrating chaos that transforms into a brilliant choral outburst at the words "Let there be light!" Herbert von Karajan's performance -- featuring the great tenor Fritz Wunderlich -- is one of the finest ever set down on record.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
"London" Symphonies, Nos. 93-94, 97, 99-101
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, conductor

This two-for-one set contains six of Haydn's great "London" symphonies in magnificent performances led by Sir Colin Davis. Highlights include the "Surprise" symphony (No. 94), which gets its name from the jarring chord heard after the very quiet beginning of its second movement, and the "Clock" symphony (No. 101), which features a ticking accompaniment in its slow movement.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
String Quartets, Op. 33, Nos. 3, 5, 6
Lindsay String Quartet

Haydn wrote that he composed the six quartets of Op. 33 in a "new and special way," and indeed they represent a revolution in string quartet writing. The quartets are lighthearted and witty, and contain catchy tunes. Instead of the traditional minuet, Haydn included a scherzo in each, and these movements quite literally represent the meaning of their name (Italian for "joke"). Haydn included other special effects as well, such as the birdcall which gives the third quartet its name. Mozart was so inspired by this set of quartets that he immediately set out to compose a set of quartets of his own, which he dedicated to Haydn. The Lindsays' fresh approach leaves little doubt as to why these quartets took Vienna by storm in 1781.

Similar works: Top 10 String Quartets, Top 10 Mozart
Piano Sonatas Nos. 32-33, 53-54, 58-62
András Schiff, piano

Haydn's piano sonatas are unjustly neglected in the Classical repertory. This collection of performances by András Schiff makes a forceful argument for their elevation to equal status with Mozart's sonatas. The sonatas are elegantly crafted and completely idiomatic to the piano. They exhibit a wide range of moods, from the storminess of No. 33 in C minor, to the relaxed, improvisatory attitude of No. 58 in C major, to the grandeur of No. 62 in E-flat major.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano
Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major
Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; National Philharmonic Orchestra, Raymond Leppard, conductor.

Mozart never wrote a trumpet concerto because the powerful instrument hurt his extremely sensitive ears, but even if he had, Haydn's concerto would make a powerful case for being named the Greatest Trumpet Concerto Ever. The concerto provides great drama and explosive virtuoso fireworks. Wynton Marsalis, one of today's best jazz trumpeters, makes the jump to classical a resounding success. The performance is vintage Haydn throughout, and Marsalis's jazz training makes the improvised cadenzas the highlight of this recording. The concerto comes paired with three more zippy Haydn concertos, one each for piano, violin, and cello.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Symphonies Nos. 82-87, "Paris"
Philharmonia Hungarica, Antál Dorati, conductor

After spending most of his professional life in the service of one employer in Vienna, Haydn was commissioned in 1785 to write six symphonies for a Parisian audience. The symphonies were a huge success, and Haydn quickly became the most popular composer in all of Europe. No. 85 is nicknamed "La Reine" because it is said to have been especially loved by Queen Marie Antoinette. Antál Dorati made the first complete recordings of the Haydn symphonies in the early 1970s, and these performances are still among the freshest interpretations these symphonies have seen.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Piano Trios Nos. 27-30
Vera Beths, violin; Anner Bylsma, cello; Robert Levin, piano

Most of the world knows Haydn's chamber compositions through his string quartets only; few realize that he did as much to advance the genre of the piano trio as he did for the quartet. The early trios are extensions of the Baroque trio sonata, featuring a violin melody with unobtrusive piano accompaniment and a cello that mirrors the bass line. By the time of these four masterpieces, Haydn had liberated the cello and given the piano much more importance; the trios are a dialogue among three equals. Haydn's works paved the way for the piano-dominated trios of Beethoven, who was composing his first set, Op. 1, right around the same time. The Beaux Arts Trio give the definitive interpretation of all of Haydn's piano trios, but if you only want one CD, then this recording featuring renowned period-performance scholar Robert Levin should do the trick.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music