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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 88 in G major, The Letter V (1789) [22:03]
L’isola disabitata: overture (1779) [6:52]
Symphony No. 101 in D minor, The Clock (17xx) [26:10]
Osterreichisch-Ungarische Haydn-Philharmonie/Adam Fischer
rec. Haydnsaal, Schloss Esterhazy, Eisenstadt, September 2006. DDD


This is Adam Fischer’s second SACD of Haydn symphonies for MDG, following Nos. 92 and 94 recorded in 2004 (MDG 901 1325-6).

In the first movement introduction of Symphony 88 (tr. 1) Fischer neatly contrasts workmanlike propositions with smoother, more playful responses. The Allegro of the main body (0:51) shows that the genial, playful mood wins. Here’s lively and accomplished playing from the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Philharmonic; the tone is light yet the articulation is firm. Surround sound maximizes the clarity of the recording in the warm acoustic of the Esterhazy Palace, the original performance venue for most of Haydn’s symphonies. That said, there’s still a touch of thickness in the gutsy semiquaver passages in the lower strings, e.g. from 3:08. Nevertheless the waywardness of the violas and cellos subverting the more orthodox thematic presentation by the violins at the beginning of the development (3:26) enhances the overall playful impression. It’s good to hear the second half as well as the exposition repeat.

The slow movement (tr. 2) luxuriates rather in warmth and relaxation, but without losing a discernible shape; this eases the argument forward. The first presentation of the serene theme, on solo cello and oboe, is finely balanced. At its third appearance (1:27) the violins gently float above the theme; later still (3:15) that floating has become freer and more sweet. The famous interjections of very loud discordant passages, the first at 2:05, in which trumpets and drums appear for the first time in the work, are presented with an adamantine rigour.

The third movement Minuet (tr. 3), spruce with good drum accents, seems trim and dapper and rather on best behaviour. The Trio is sunnier with its warm drone and well pointed violin parts. The treatment of the sforzandi here, the sudden strongly accented notes, is just right. Yet there’s more of an impression of neatness than humour.

In the finale (tr. 4) the brilliance of the playing appositely matches that of Haydn’s invention. The whole has a vivacious and virtuoso sweep about it and there’s no holding back on the accents here either. A fine example of a historically informed performance with a stimulatingly pacy and blazing conclusion.

I compared the only other recording available on SACD, that by the Concertgebouw Orchestra/Colin Davis (Pentatone PTC 5186 126) which dates from 1975 and appears on 4 channel SACD courtesy of the original Philips quadraphonic mastertapes. Here are the comparative timings:







Fischer 2006






Davis 1975

6:20 (8:53)




19:35 (22:08)

Davis’ introduction is notably slower, taking 1:04 against Fischer’s 0:50. There’s a bigger weight of tone from his larger body of strings and therefore more contrast between the loud and soft elements, more imposing on the one hand and graceful on the other. Davis’s Allegro is more assertive and thereby humorous with more incisive lower strings and gradations of dynamic made clear. There’s more mystery about the opening of the development, more dramatic contrasts of dynamic, more animated strings and a more intense engagement with the music, though it might be argued this is somewhat romantic. In comparison with Davis, Fischer’s introduction seems rather nonchalant, but he is more scrupulous about the semiquaver followed by quaver opening to all the phrases which Davis rather evens out. With Fischer’s fewer strings Haydn’s orchestration emerges more transparently. But the tiered crescendo from tr. 1 1:37 is less effective than with Davis. You could say Fischer is more neat and classical but doesn’t sweep along with Davis’s conviction. The Davis timing looks faster because he doesn’t make the second half repeat. In the heading I’ve put in brackets the directly comparable time with Fischer had he made the repeat. Paradoxically, though slightly slower, Davis conveys more of a sense of momentum. If you think of this movement as a carriage journey, with Davis you experience the thrill of the drive; with Fischer you admire the mechanisms which bring about the smooth operation.

The slow movement, in the hands of Davis, is fuller in tone and thereby more warmly emotive, the sforzandi respectfully measured at the emotive peaks of the phrases and the dissonant interruptions stark. But here I prefer Fischer’s lighter, more intimate, chamber manner. The sforzandi aren’t so marked but still emotively shape the phrases so the serene melody emerges with comely, simple beauty. The dissonant passages are still clearly contrasted with an impact from the timpani that Davis doesn’t realize, while Fischer’s clear but less strident trumpets in comparison with those of Davis, are closer to period instrument balance. Fischer shows that loud presentation of the theme late in the movement (tr. 2, 4:13) in lower register by unison first violins and cellos can still be ‘sweet’ as marked because of the smaller forces used than Davis. Indeed I think he actually uses soloists at this point.

Davis’s bigger band makes for a splendidly swaggering Minuet yet one also with playful soft contrasts. The Trio is calmer but the accents maintain the playfulness. Fischer’s smaller forces are less majestically assured but provide bounce and bite. In the Trio he brings out the drone more clearly.

Davis’s finale has a jocular progression with racy appoggiaturas and a combination of power, dazzle and smiling charm, with his larger orchestra able to make more of the firm dynamic contrasts which Haydn ranges between pp and fff. In comparison Fischer is quieter yet still jovial. His lower strings perform heroics in articulation of verve from tr. 4, 1:54, albeit without being able to match the incisive weight of those of Davis.

Next on Fischer’s SACD comes the overture to The uninhabited island and you can feel him relishing its graphic, programmatic material. The slow introduction is gaunt. This is what it feels like to find yourself in unfamiliar surroundings, but its extension (tr. 5 0:49) through sequences of the initial motif make clear that the abandoned have a capacity for expressive feeling. The stormy fast section in G minor (1:35) also seems to be as much about feelings as action. The loved one feels betrayed, but soon (2:02) is able to throw herself into action to make the best of it, whereupon the island gets domesticated in a gracious second theme (2:32). After more bustle there’s an even more euphoric mood-swing to a kind of minuet in G major (4:08) for solo violin, cello, flute, bassoon and horn. Isolation is also shelter, or rather here’s a foretaste of the opera’s happy ending. This turns wistful to link to a brief reprise of the stormy fast section as coda.

I have a historic performance for comparison, the Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli at the 1954 Proms (Guild Historical GHCD 2320), only 7 seconds slower. He uses the fuller tone of a larger orchestra to realize a bolder opening with more sense of alarm and then dramatically contrasting gentle expressiveness. His storm section has extraordinary vehemence but too many violins rather weigh down the ‘minuet’. Returning to Fischer I appreciated the more the sense of strangeness and concern he creates at the outset and then his sensitive shading of the response full of feeling. His fast section is more formal than Barbirolli’s but with its phases neatly clarified. His ‘minuet’ with chamber ensemble forces is jollier, homelier yet also maintaining a strong forward pulse.

Fischer’s SACD closes with Symphony 101. Its first movement introduction in poised performance here has something of the strangeness of the preceding overture but also more hints of light. This is confirmed by the Presto main body (tr. 6 1:17) at first feathery then boisterous in manner with vigorous timpani and violins threatening to fall over each other in their quaver runs. Fischer gets across very well that there are both carefree and manic elements which live side by side, the more biting aspects coming to the fore in the development (4:07).

The well paced, that’s not too slow, Andante gives the slow movement - its ticking accompaniment giving the symphony its name - charm and elegance as well as humour. The marvel of this movement is the flexibility and variation of the violins’ melodic line and here rightly is Fischer’s focus, notwithstanding the varied clock background. The second section of the initial presentation (tr. 7 0:46) is freer in expression as it progresses, so an underlying spontaneity is created which makes the D minor interjection (2:32) stimulating - again a kind of mania, not alarming but bravado.

The Allegretto Minuet is also reasonably paced by Fischer so it’s both stately and sunny with the involvement of drums and brass relished. I like the little unmarked crescendo applied to the two-note motif the trumpets repeat twice (tr. 8 1:52) which gives it point and pep. The Trio has delicious soft tones contrasted with more grand eruptions. Fischer introduces the finale theme almost nonchalantly, but you know an exuberant stream of quavers will soon be launched. As in the first movement the violin tricks are seamlessly presented, virtuosity is paraded lightly, even the double fugue (tr. 9 3:00).

I compared Fischer’s 1987 recording of this symphony with the same orchestra and in the same location, the very first recorded in his complete Haydn cycle on CD (Brilliant Classics 99925). Here are the comparative timings:







Fischer 2006






Fischer 1987






In 1987 Fischer’s first movement introduction is more tense, the sforzandi more deliberate. In 2006 there’s a sense of mystery, the outcome of which may be good, with clear yet not over-emphatic sforzandi (tr. 6 0:57). The 1987 Presto is robust and exuberant but the strings are less stylish and rather overwhelmed by the brass in the full orchestra passages in the two channel sound. It’s like witnessing the performance from towards the back of the hall rather than, with the MDG 5.1 channel sound, being at the heart of it. The 2006 string playing, violins especially, is much smoother and more deft, the balance with the brass better without denying their impact nor that of the timpani which are magnificent. The violins have a skipping ebullience and you never feel the effort inherent in their demanding parts. Take the poise of the second theme (3:32) which glides from lightness to a brief luxuriating charm to perkiness, significant because at the opening of the development this takes centre-stage. I also liked the way Fischer really makes the coda burnish at the close, taking his cue from the ff marking for cellos and double basses (7:09) and applying it generally.

Fischer’s more measured 1987 Andante is graceful but rather sleepy in comparison with 2006. The dynamic contrasts in the second section of the first presentation of the melody seem over deliberate, the D minor interjection formal and stolid, as are all similar passages. The 2006 Andante is altogether cheerier, lighter, with the shape of the melody more appreciable, the dynamic contrasts in the second section humorous and the return of the opening melody (tr. 7 1:18) has the flute beautifully balanced now it’s doubling the first violins. Vivacity is maintained in the D minor and other interjections because of the consistent darting rhythmic articulation.

Fischer’s slower 1987 Minuet seems comparatively stiff in its formal grandeur, though the Trio is more relaxed and free flowing because of its largely lighter scoring. The 2006 Minuet has more pace, bounce, jollity and thereby also more shape and purpose to it yet still plenty of weight from brass and drums. The Trio is also perkier, with more startling dynamic contrasts.

Fischer’s 1987 finale is almost as fast as 2006. It has style throughout and a hothouse intensity in the passages for full orchestra. Nevertheless the opening in 2006 has more warmth and character with crisper, more humorous articulation of rhythms. The 1987 recording is rather strings-dominated but the 2006 shows the whole orchestra involved and thus gives a more rounded picture. The second episode (tr. 9 2:17) is exciting without the wildness of 1987. The 2006 double fugue entries glisten more emphatically with more of a sense of summation.

To sum up, these are state-of-the-art historically-informed performances on modern instruments with fine transparency of texture. However, 55 minutes is rather short measure for a full price SACD. Three symphonies would have been more attractive.

Michael Greenhalgh


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