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There are two pictures of Adam Fischer in the booklet accompanying this massive set. One, taken before the odyssey, of a dapper young man in tails with the cut of a maestro about him. The second is at the end of the project – a dishevelled old bloke in civvies with what little hair he has left flapping all over the place. Fourteen years of Haydn does that to a man. But there is a glint in the eyes of the second man. That face has been shaped by a lot of laughter : perhaps the big grin in the photograph is permanent. This is the marvel of the great treasure trove of Haydn symphonies – that in their comedy, their eccentricities, their surprises, their deviant moments, they are a joy to get to know.
Which is why it is a pity that there are not more complete sets about. The reason is obviously the effort involved in recording 104 symphonies. This project took fourteen years to complete, which is a lot for conductors, record companies (the original label, Nimbus, has since gone bust) and orchestras to invest. In this case, the conductor is obviously addicted and committed to the body of symphonies, and the project is the orchestra’s raison d’être.
The Austro Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, founded by Adam Fischer especially for this project, has proved to be a remarkably consistent body for what was a seasonal band. I tried playing "guess the year" a few times from listening to the symphonies, and so consistent was the playing that it was impossible to tell. Part of the reason is that the players, drawn from orchestras in Vienna and Budapest are top notch. None are named, but to indicate the standard, the bassoonist Michael Werba, who plays in the Sinfonia Concertante is a member of the Vienna Philharmonic and has made a very fine recording of the Mozart Concerto. Like all the wind players, his playing is always clear and full-toned. Another reason is the recording venue: the Haydnsaal in the Esterházy palace – a wonderfully evocative venue with an acoustic that is perhaps over-generous, but no serious hindrance to enjoyment of these performances.
The style of the orchestra is markedly traditional. It must have been a courageous decision to start a Haydn project with a traditional orchestra at the height of the period instrument movement, but it is not one that has been shown to be mistaken. For all the fullness of sound, it could not be said that the wind parts are covered, or the string textures too muddy. Indeed the string playing is extremely clean, with beautiful string ensemble. Perhaps it would have been lighter on period instruments, but not necessarily more virtuous: in his later symphonies in particular Haydn was searching for a more blended sonority, and achieving it on modern instruments is no crime. My only quibble with the set-up of the band is the lack of dynamics in the very early symphonies, presumably due to the small set-up. But Haydn was fastidious in his dynamic markings, and there is no reason why a band the same as for the London symphonies would have been inappropriate.
There are many things in the playing style to admire. There is a real feeling for the music of Haydn, and a great character about the orchestra, in terms of sonority with its plangent Viennese oboes, and in terms of discourse with its accents and rubatos: what Fischer calls its "local dialect." Unfortunately, some of these characteristics also turn out to be drawbacks. They cannot play an appoggiatura without heavily accenting the dissonant note, even at the expense of the momentum of the music, sometimes confusing the natural order of strong and weak beats within the bar. According to Charles Rosen, "even a quick comparison of one of Haydn’s symphonies with a solo sonata will show that the symphony avoids all those effects which require the individual nuances and refinements of rubato." In fairness to Fischer, his tempos are always extremely natural, and rubato is reserved mainly for the minuets, but there are times (for example, the presto of no.15) when it intrudes on the unfolding of the music.
However, let us not dwell on the drawbacks – they are not fatal. Listening to other orchestras on disc, say the recent Naxos recording with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra or the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, I can think of few that I would prefer to listen to over the course of a whole set.
Perhaps the biggest single virtue of this set is that it exists. For the glory of the symphonies is in the surprises, the deviations from convention, the experiments, the development of his language. Whilst in the service of Prince Esterházy he was writing for an extremely discerning audience who recognised the conventions of sonata form and were amused when Haydn confounded their expectations. Hence all the magical effects that are included in the scores. Hearing the same orchestra under the same baton neutralises the peculiarities of the performers and provides a frame of reference that points up the peculiarities of the writing, of which there are an almost inexhaustible number: sonatas da chiesa, slow introductions, bizarre combinations of instruments, movements in three tempos, the list goes on. As trite as it sounds, a set that plays all the right notes at the right speed with a nice sound will bring these out beautifully. This is why, in my opinion, this Fischer project is superior to its most obvious rival, the famous complete set by Antal Dorati and the Philharmonia Hungarica. For all its excellent musicianship, that one is let down by some dodgy playing and unnatural minuets. The Fischer set is without maddening eccentricities and can be recommended for the long haul.
Granted, many of the symphonies have received better performances elsewhere. The recording of the farewell Symphony (45), for example, by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is stunningly good, but this one reminds us of its place amongst the Sturm und Drang symphonies. Simon Rattle’s recording of no. 22 is amazing, with its spare, Webern-like textures, and is better played than the one here, but hearing it amongst the others shows what a strange effect Haydn intended by scoring two cor anglais instead of two oboes. In this set the magic is Haydn’s, in the isolated recording it is Rattle’s.
The early symphonies will for many listeners offer great discoveries. I had no idea that Haydn used a fugal ending as early as his third symphony. Each work is a little laboratory – the effects that would be incorporated into the musical structure are still slightly tacked on to the early works, but the orchestra tackle these with as much enthusiasm and commitment as the late great works. I especially love the performances of numbers 13 and 25, both full of vim and immaculately played. The symphonies from 41 to 49 are amongst the finest of all, and here they are joyously good. It must be said that the quality dips towards the end of the Esterházy years, as Haydn’s duties tended towards opera.
The late symphonies are where it is hardest to justify these performances against the competition, mainly because the Paris and London symphonies are so much more recorded than all the others, most notably by Colin Davis. These could not said to be the finest recordings on disc, but they are not embarrassed in any company, and at the end of such a glorious apprenticeship, they do have the feeling of the culmination of a great life’s work. With added generosity, the Sinfonia Concertante for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon is included, in a wonderfully characterful performance.
Strangely, music lovers seem to take Haydn for granted. I can think of no other composer with such a large gap between his musical achievement and his public appreciation. This set is a very great step towards educating us all in this clever, profound, pioneering, but most of all, wonderfully joyous music, and is one I shall return to again and again and again. With its consistently good playing and natural manner, it is one that I recommend without any hesitation.
See also review by Peter Lawson
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
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