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Ionarts-at-Large: David Fray on a Day in D-Minor

complauding [kuhm-plawd-ing]
1. The contemporaneous grumbling and praise of the presence of Haydn on a concert program, but performed as the first piece, thereby subliminally or overtly suggesting that Haydn is ‘nice’, but ‘not really that important’. When of course he is that important. And more.

I’ve hit upon a perfect hat-trick of Haydn-complauding over the course of less than a fortnight: Haydn as warm-up-sonata (Leif Ove Andsnes), Haydn as introduction-trio (Boulanger Piano Trio), and on this Wednesday, April 4th, Haydn as throw-away-overture with the Munich Philharmonic performing Symphony No.26 (“Lamentatione”) ahead of a Bach concerto and Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony.

Apart from placement-issues and being performed too little, the third Haydn-bugbear is that it’s so damn difficult to play really well—for all the deceptive ease that the sound of the music makes. And it only gets more difficult, the less often Orchestras play Haydn in relation to romantic and modern fare. Literally a classical Catch-22, because audiences can be excused for finding Haydn a little lame when the orchestra is noodling about, itself unenthusiastic, under-rehearsed (with the scarce rehearsal time going to the splashy, ostensibly more difficult piece), and ignorant about Haydn’s idiom.

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Keyboard Concertos,
D.Fray / Bremen Chamber Phil.
Virgin Classics

available at Amazon
J.Haydn, Symphonies 26, 73, 82,
S.Cambreling / SWR SO BB-F
Glor Classics

available at Amazon
Bach/Busoni, Chorales, BWV 564 & 565, Chaconne,

At least my Haydn-predicament has been heavy on the “plawd-ing” side, since neither Andsnes, nor the Boulanger Trio, nor Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the scaled-down MPhil, made a dog’s breakfast out of their Haydn assignment. In fact, the 27 string players + two oboes, bassoon, two horns, under the principal conductor of lower Austria’s Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, delivered a surprise of vitality and loveliness. And it was a smart bit of programming to boot, given the symphony’s overt hymnal and easterly character; many of its tunes cobbled together from Austrian passion plays. The finale of the three-movement work—Menuetto e Trio—is short, ends abruptly and wasn’t helped by an all-too harmless rendering, which left the impression that Haydn demurely accepted his place in the shadow of Bach and Dvořák on this program, instead of asserting itself as the decidedly finest music of the lot. But then it wouldn’t be like Haydn to do that. Funny how it is Haydn’s music that would best fit the attitude of Wagner.

For Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in d-minor, BWV 1052, David Fray waggled onto the stage—a young (1981) French pianist who is already on his way to become classical music royalty. He’s got an exclusive record contract with Virgin under his belt, and a politically shrewd marriage to Riccardo Muti’s daughter… Vladimir Horowitz and Wanda Toscanini are waving from the wings. Likeable and with a few catchy affectations, he goes down well with the public. Bent over Bach, he resembled Grigory Sokolov sitting at the piano. Not that it had any effect on the sound. This Bach was devoid of anything, including fault. The closest he came to an interpretation was the particularly emphasized thumping of a few left hand notes in the finale—exactly the way he does it on his 2008 recording (ionarts review here.). Orozco-Estrada didn’t exactly egg him on, either, and instead contented himself to his rôle as accompanist, coaxing some delicate playing from the orchestra.

How fortunate that the audience was not as disappointed as I and called him back: the first encore that Fray produced—a Bach chorale of Busoni provenance, with specially lowered, moody lights—was so engrossing that by the time he added Schumann’s first Kinderszene (which could not improve upon the just-gained impression) I was already confused whether I had just heard “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” or “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu” or yet something else. It had all the promise for effectively, tastefully milking a piece of music that I remember from Fray’s 2007 Nino Rota Concerto.

Dvořák’s darkly grand Seventh Symphony rounded out an evening kept in all d-minor. By all accounts it was commissioned by the Royal (London) Philharmonic Society in 1884 (although the Society does not list it among their commissioned works, and elsewhere claims having commissioned the 8th, which it surely did not), and certainly premiered under its auspices at St. James's Hall in London, with the composer conducting. It shows Dvořák at his most consciously ambitious, sumptuous, and along with the busy timpanist, the work seems to raise and shake both fists. It sways, like a drunkard, between rage and maudlin expressions of love, and it came across very nicely in this solid performance, aided by the dark, thick sound that comes naturally to the orchestra. There wasn’t much overt steering from the podium, and it never seemed needed.