Notes and Editorial Reviews
A strong contender as an introduction to some wonderful music.
There are two ways to obtain the complete Haydn symphonies: a third set on Sony, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies seems no longer to be generally available in the UK, even as a download.
One was made some time ago by Antal Doráti with the Philharmonia Hungarica (Decca 448 5312, 33 CDs). From this set only the Paris Symphonies seem currently to be separately available (Decca E473 8102) and, at prices ranging from around £165 to £195 – even more, £352.15, for the download from hmvdigital.com – buying the whole thing may be something of a daunting proposition. Even as a download, only that Paris set, two
Double Decca sets of the London Symphonies and a Decca Eloquence recording of Nos. 94, 100 and 101 remain available separately. These are fine performances of which I can speak from personal experience, having owned several of them on LP; I still have and regularly play some of the smaller CD sets from the series which were once available.
There is, however, a far less expensive way to obtain the symphonies complete, from the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra under Adam Fischer; the whole set comes on just 8 CDs in mp3 format (NI1722) and can be purchased from MusicWeb International for £23.00 post free. The discs can be played directly from any CD, SACD or blu-ray player which offers mp3 playback, but it’s better to drop and drag the files onto a computer hard drive and play them from there.
Dominy Clements in recommending the set went so far as to include graphic print-outs of the same segment of Symphony No.1 from the normal CD and the mp3 version, demonstrating not only that they sound identical but that there is objective evidence to support the point.
The selection listed above comes from that complete set and, although I don’t have access to that mp3 edition on disc, I’ve been listening to some of the symphonies in mp3 sound from the Naxos Music Library and I’m blessed if I can hear any difference between the versions on CD and the mp3 equivalents.
I’ve reviewed the classicsonline.com downloads of Symphonies Nos.1-20 – July 2012/2 Download Roundup – and Symphonies 21-39 and ‘107’-‘108’ (also known as ‘A’ and ‘B’) – July 2009 Download Roundup. Though I could hardly recommend the downloads when they are more expensive (£39.95) than their physical equivalents on 5 CDs (NI5426-30 and NI5683-7 respectively, £23.00 each post free from MusicWeb International), I was able to confirm the high quality of the mp3 sound. So if you are looking for a complete set of the Haydn symphonies that mp3 set, NI1722, looks to me like the best. If, however, you would like to ease yourself into this wonderful music gradually, the ‘Great Haydn Symphonies’ pair of CDs, obtainable from MusicWeb International for £12 post paid, would be an excellent way to dip your toe into the water.
By no means all the Haydn symphonies with a nickname received their nomenclature from Haydn himself, and by no means all of them are accurate. In this case, however, the set of six nicknamed works provides a very useful peg on which to hang a 2-CD set of works from all periods of Haydn’s long productive life. Not only that, but these are six of my own favourites among the composer’s huge symphonic output.
No.6 comes from the earliest period of his tenure with the Esterházy family. It’s one of a series of three linked works, depicting Morning, Noon and Evening, though it stands well enough on its own. Early it may be, but Haydn never really had a period when his music didn’t sound fully accomplished and its appeal is enhanced by the excellent performance which it receives.
Symphony No.45 is the most famous of the Sturm und Drang symphonies from Haydn’s middle period, around 1770. The name Sturm und Drang or storm and stress refers properly to the pre-romantic literature of the period, notably to a series of works by Goethe and Schiller. The story behind the last movement, with the musicians leaving one by one as a hint to their employer that they needed a break, is well known but that doesn’t diminish the power of the music; it remains unhackneyed no matter how many times I must have heard it. Perhaps the performance here doesn’t quite match the power of a Vanguard recording with Antonio Janigro at the helm, which used to be available, but it comes pretty close.
No.48 also comes from the Sturm und Drang period. Its nickname refers to the belief formerly held that it was composed specially for a visit from the empress, Maria Theresa. For some reason she always seems to develop an spurious extra ‘i’ in the name of this symphony, perhaps by false association with the German name Mariatheresien-symphonie. As with No.45, it’s easy to see why the symphonies of this period came to be linked with the literature of the period. My only reservation about Fischer’s performance of this symphony may sound irrational, but the modern horns hit their notes just slightly too comfortably in comparison with period-instrument performances.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Fischer’s account of this work, but compare the period-instrument performance from Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band on an inexpensive Hyperion recording (Helios CDH55119, with Nos. 49 and 50, £6.99 or less; £5.99 for mp3 or lossless download: see March 2012/2 Download Roundup) and the extra adventure involved in hitting the right notes adds an extra touch of zest to the performance, as does the inclusion of a just-audible harpsichord. Any one of the budget-price discs from this series might make a useful addition to the Nimbus ‘Great Symphonies’ set; it’s a series that was never quite completed, though it contains recordings from all periods of Haydn’s symphonic output.
If you’ve fallen for the appeal of Haydn in Sturm und Drang mode, Nimbus offer another 2-CD set of Nos. 43, 44, 49, 52, 59 and 64 (here).
Symphony No.82 moves us on several years to Haydn’s visit to Paris in 1785/7. Fischer’s performances of the six symphonies from this period are available on a pair of Nimbus CDs (NI5419-20 - £16.00 post free from MusicWeb International here). The only reservation that I have about recommending the ‘Great Symphonies’ set is that you may well fall for the charms of No.82 and want the whole set. If you doubt the validity of the ‘bear’ nickname for this symphony, Fischer’s growly finale makes it seem thoroughly appropriate, even though it isn’t one of Haydn’s own devising. Here again, only a preference for a period-instrument performance such as Harnoncourt’s Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 3-CD set (82876606022, all repeats observed) or Roy Goodman’s on Hyperion (Nos. 82-4, CDH55123) would be reason to look elsewhere – I’m happy with either approach.
The Oxford Symphony was performed at Haydn’s award of an honorary doctorate by the university, so the title has some validity even though in the end he failed to compose the new work he had intended for the occasion and substituted one that was already well known in England. Simon Rattle’s account of this and other symphonies from the period between the Paris visit and Haydn’s first to London has received critical praise (Nos.88-92 and Sinfonia Concertante, EMI 3942372: Recording of the Month, but I find it too heavy by comparison with the best period performances. You don’t need period instruments, however, to make the symphonies of this period sound well, as Eugen Jochum demonstrated in his BPO recordings of Nos. 88 and 98 and his later LPO set of the ‘London’ Symphonies and as Fischer demonstrates in his version of the Oxford. This is modern-instrument Haydn without the ‘big band’ effect that I find from Rattle and I found it an excellent complement to Roy Goodman’s period-band on Hyperion Helios CDH55125.
The nicknames of Haydn’s symphonies don’t always translate from one language to another. In German No. 94 is known as the Drum Stroke Symphony (mit dem Paukenschlag), so easily confused with what is known in English as the Drum Roll Symphony, No.103. The English nickname, Surprise, like the German, refers to the loud stroke in the slow movement, designed to wake the ladies. I first got to know this symphony from Beecham’s early-1950s Columbia (CBS) performance, once available on the Philips Classical Favourites label – no longer available but his later 1950s remake, still in mono, is on the first of two EMI Gemini 2-CD sets: details below. If Fischer and his team don’t quite recapture the magic of that version – could anyone? – I can’t think of any better recent version.
Hungarian orchestras and conductors seem to have a particularly strong rapport with Haydn – surely it can’t just be due to the fact that he composed for the Esterházy family whose palaces spanned what is now the international border. There used to be several CDs of his music on the Hungaroton White Label which, if reissued at budget price, would still be well worth considering. David Blum recorded several of the symphonies with the Esterházy Orchestra for Vanguard which, like those Hungarotons, I still listen to with pleasure. Intermittently available on CD, there’s a very strong case for the latter especially to be reissued. Despite their Eastern European name, the Esterházy Orchestra are American. Still available, however, and of genuine Hungarian provenance, are the successful recordings which Naxos has made of Haydn symphonies with the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia and Béla Drahos.
Good as all these are, the Austro-Hungarian Orchestra, drawn from top-flight Austrian and Hungarian players, is best of all. These recordings were made over a period of seven years, during which time the orchestra had three Konzertmeister, or leaders: Rainer Küchl, Erich Binder and Wolfgang Redik. The quality of performance over that period is remarkably consistent.
I’m not suggesting that these are perfect – even if such a thing were possible. I would have liked a little more generosity in the matter of first movement repeats, for example. Without necessarily wishing for every repeat to be observed, as Harnoncourt does in his most recent recording of the Paris Symphonies for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, I do feel that there’s imbalance in Fischer’s No.82 – Doráti’s, too, for that matter – where the first and second movements are almost exactly the same length and the finale is shorter than either. Goodman strikes a neat compromise by observing the first-movement repeats but not those in the finale (Hyperion Helios CDH55123, with Nos.83 and 84).
Just occasionally, too, I felt that some of Fischer’s ritardandi were slightly artificial, but that’s only if one judges them against those of Thomas Beecham, who somehow manages to make everything he does seem thoroughly natural and Haydnesque, even though he clung to outdated editions which he knew to be erroneous when better texts were already available. See the review of his EMI recordings of the London Symphonies – Bargain of the Month – and my November 2011/1 Download Roundup. Beulah have reissued Beecham’s Symphonies Nos. 101 and 103 – see April 2012/1 Download Roundup.
The recordings are excellent throughout. Even the two earliest here, of Nos. 45 and 94 from 1988, are not at all bad but the later recordings sound even better. With short but valuable notes this inexpensive set is a strong contender.
-- Brian Wilson, MusicWeb International
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