Joseph Haydn: L'Incontro Improvviso. © 2023 CPO

CD Spotlight

Haydn's 'Turkish' Soundworld

GERALD FENECH explores the composer's seventh opera, 'L'Incontro Improvviso'

'... excellent throughout ...'


One of the most prolific composers of the classical era, if not the most, is certainly Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). Famous for his symphonies, string quartets and other chamber works, instrumental pieces, concertos for various instruments and fourteen masses among other sacred works such as the Stabat Mater and The Seven Last Words from the Cross, it seems that everything he wrote has remained popular even into our own times.

Well, not everything! There is one genre that is still waiting to make its mark on critics and audiences alike. Guess which one. Maybe it does not come readily to mind, so here it is: opera. Yes, Haydn was a prolific opera composer for the Esterhazy Princes, but for no valid reason, the fourteen works he wrote for the stage still lag behind his other huge output in popularity. During the seventies Antal Doráti did try to make these works more worthy of people's appreciation by recording eight of them on the Philips label, but the situation did not change much. So every new recording of one of these operas should be welcomed with joy, as there is a wealth of beauty in this repertoire waiting to be discovered.

Now to the task in hand. L'Incontro Improvviso is Haydn's seventh opera and he composed it for a special occasion. Visitations by foreign heads of state were in those days rather lavish affairs. And that was certainly the case when Archduke Ferdinand and Maria Beatrice d'Este, alongside a retinue of well over one hundred servants, visited the former hunting lodge of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy in the town of Eisenstadt. They even brought their own wind band and stayed for a total of four days during the late summer of 1775.

Of course, Haydn was the famous Kapellmeister at the Esterhazy Palace, and he was called upon to provide some musical entertainment. In keeping with the current fascination with Turkish music and subjects which had grown out of the cultural exchange through Ottoman Empire ambassadors, Haydn decided to set an 'abduction' opera. The composer approached his staff member Carl Friberth for a suitable libretto and it was decided to adapt the French comic play Le Rencontre Imprevue by Dancourt.

When all was set and done, L'Incontro Improvviso premiered on 20 August 1775. The selected audience loved the piece but that was as far as it got, albeit other sporadic performances which cannot be accounted for.

Listen — Haydn: Terzetto (L'Incontro Improvviso)
(555 327-2 CD1 track 10, 2:00-2:52) ℗ 2023 CPO :

Set in Cairo, the plot features Prince Ali who is fleeing from his evil brother and ends up in Persia. There he falls in love with Princess Rezia, who unfortunately is betrothed to another. They elope but are quickly captured by corsairs and separated. Later Prince Ali learns that Princess Rezia has been sold to the Sultan of Cairo and he rushes after her in order to rescue her. In the meantime, the Sultan has fallen in love with Rezia and intends to win her heart by showing kindness and he allows her much freedom. When Ali arrives, they hatch a plot to escape which is foiled by a greedy Dervish. Moved by their example of pure love, the Sultan pardons the couple and gives them his blessing and, at their request, pardons the Dervish but banishes him from Cairo.

Given its exotic theme, Haydn incorporated a battery of Turkish percussion, including bass drums, into the score. The opera is indeed vintage Haydn and the music is a constant delight.

Listen — Haydn: Sinfonia (L'Incontro Improvviso)
(555 327-2 CD1 track 1, 0:48-1:37) ℗ 2023 CPO :

True, it might not be a dramatic masterpiece, but as I said before, it contains some truly magnificent though sadly neglected music. Something that won me over completely is the 'Turkish' soundworld, so brilliantly portrayed by Haydn's inexhaustible genius.

Michi Gaigg keeps things moving briskly, and her meticulous attention to Haydn's deft orchestral touches bring out all the exquisite delights of this score, particularly in the Turkish passages. Singers and players are excellent throughout and their enthusiastic approach to the music makes this opera sound as good as any at the time, Mozart included.

Listen — Haydn: Coro Finale (L'Incontro Improvviso)
(555 327-2 CD2 track 20, 3:38-4:32) ℗ 2023 CPO :

This is a much needed issue that will thrill all Haydn afficionados, as well as most opera lovers in general. Sound and booklet notes are superb.

Copyright © 23 July 2023 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta



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