IDAGIO Meets ... Giovanni Antonini

The Italian conductor talks to IDAGIO about one of the most ambitious recording projects of our time, Haydn2032.

Giovanni Antonini talks to IDAGIO about one of the most ambitious recording projects of our time, Haydn2032, which will see him record all of Haydn's symphonies in time for the 300th anniversary of the composer's birth. The project, now nearly one third complete, is organised, produced and financed by the Joseph Haydn Foundation in Basel, and features both the Basel Chamber Orchestra and Il Giardino Armonico.

The last release in the series, Volume 10, was Les heures du jour. Can you tell us something about that? 

In Les heures du jour we have three quite well known symphonies – "Le matin", "Le midi" and "Le soir" – where there is a descriptive idea. The first, "Le matin", begins with a sort of sunrise, as we can also find much later in Haydn in Die Schöpfung (The Creation). But I'd say it's not descriptive music as we usually think of it. The titles are just a hint for Haydn, and we know from several sources that, whenever Haydn started to compose a piece, he would have a sort of extra-musical path in mind. In our Haydn project we also try to include other pieces: an extra composition that isn't by Haydn, or is by him but is, let's say, vocal music and not a symphony. In this case, after the symphonies ("Le matin", "Le midi" and "Le soir") we put the Serenata Notturna – the "night serenade" by Mozart. I thought that would be perfect, to have "Le Soir" (The Evening) by Haydn followed by the night with Mozart!

How are these early symphonies different from the later ones, which are perhaps better known?

In these three early symphonies there are several Baroque elements, and as works they are in some ways between a symphony and sinfonia concertante and concerto grosso. And the relation between Haydn and Baroque music is very strong, especially in this first period. For example, at the end of the second movement of "Le midi" (Symphony No. 6) – the pianissimo at the end of the Adagio – there is definitely a quotation from Corelli. And very often we find quotations from Pergolesi or Vivaldi. The whole idea to write descriptive music is a concept that is quite related to Baroque music – think of Vivaldi's Four Seasons or concerti like "La Notte", or Biber's La battalia. So there is something in Haydn here that comes from the past, but he developed it in a very personal and original way.

Tell us more about the original approach to programming for Haydn2032. How do you choose which works to include alongside the symphonies?

Some people – especially musicologists – might think that the methods we have are quite unscientific. It's true that a programme is sometimes just based on a personal feeling towards a composition, whether it's just a symphony or piece I like, for example. I start by asking: what's the general character of the piece? It's not easy, because in a Haydn symphony you never have just one character. But I try to find a character that in some way touches me or fascinates me, and then I start to find other pieces that can fit. Sometimes I like to experiment and ask what would be interesting to put together. I think about what I would like if I went to a concert. I don't want to listen to a music encyclopedia; I want to have some fun. Each volume has a different story. Sometimes it's musicological; sometimes it's more just because I like it, and then I find a reason to justify it! 

Tell us about working with Il giardino armonico on this project?  

Il giardino armonico is the group I grew up with. We started in 1985 when I was 20 years old, and it was – and still is – an incredible adventure. Those were different times, of course, and it was the moment when the CD was an absolutely new thing, and we were lucky that so many groups like us had the opportunity to record so much. It was also the moment when this movement of performing with period instruments arrived in Italy, which was perhaps the last country in Europe where that happened, after Holland, England, Germany and France. So the Giardino is my life, but I'd say it was also my music academy, because for many things I'm a self-taught musician – but self-taught within Il giardino armonico, together with my colleagues.

Giovanni Antonini and Il giardino armonico recording Haydn (photo © Federico Emmi)

And the Kammerorchester Basel…

My history with Kammerorchester Basel is not as long, but it still goes back almost 20 years to when I recorded the Beethoven symphonies with them for Sony. It was a fascinating project and a complete adventure, because I'd never performed the pieces before. So the two orchestras have completely different stories for me. In general I play and record the bigger stuff with the Kammerorchester Basel, but next January we'll have a project where we put together both orchestras. I don't know how it will work – well, I think – but it will be very interesting!

The next album in Haydn2032, Au Goût parisien, is released in October 2021; the next live concert, Majestäten, streams in IDAGIO's Global Concert Hall on October 5. 

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