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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Haydn
Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)

Symphony No 93
Symphony No 94 Surprise
Symphony No 103 Drumroll
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded 1950-51
SONY CLASSICAL SMK89890 [71’52]


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Beecham conducted Haydn symphonies for fifty-five years, from his first performance of No 103, in 1905 to his very last concert in 1960 with No 100, the Military. He was drawn to the later symphonies and never showed much concern in performing any of the earlier except No 40 – which he gave in a cluster of performances and recorded. Even when it came to the London Symphonies, Nos 95 and 96 seem to have been played only for his recording of the set in 1957/58. No 98 was rather parsimoniously dealt with as well – the truth is that Beecham’s knowledge of Haydn was extensive but his performances of the composer were circumscribed and so, despite the famous recording of The Seasons, it was hardly a staple of his repertoire and the Creation hardly at all. This selectivity was his prerogative and in many ways his Haydn was as convincing, if not more consistently so, than his Mozart.

These three performances shouldn’t be confused with the Complete London Symphonies set – HMV ALP 1624/26 – which dated from 1957/58. What this Sony Classics disc has restored to the catalogue are the American Columbia traversals of 1950/51. These are imbued with a shopping list of virtues and one or two caveats. Of the latter it should be noted that Beecham’s editions were of the old school and he didn’t much care. So we get a thoroughly inauthentic pizzicato end of No 93’s Menuetto and Trio, no repeats in the same movement or in the similar movement in No 103. In addition to which Beecham didn’t go in for exposition repeats at all and some of his tempi might strike one now as sluggish. In his favour one can note the following; the trenchancy of his phrasing, the elegance and precision of the string moulding, the aristocracy of his music-making, the superb orchestral contributions, the tremendous weight Beecham gives to the thematic material, the balancing of rusticity and gentility in Haydn’s syntax, the stupendous rhythmic life Beecham brings, the sense of momentum and control of rubato, the particular characterisation of each movement – the list is long and very varied.

No 93 for example is graced by broad attack in the first movement and a trenchant working out of its development. Maybe some aspects of phrasing in the slow movement are rather finicky, as his later Mozart performance could occasionally be; it strikes my ear as overnuanced and not entirely convincing. The following Minuet by contrast – despite the loss of its repeat – is all elegance, grace and proportion. The contrapuntal finale shows what subtlety in matters of dynamics and timing Beecham could routinely bring - and the entirely appropriate sonorities he cultivated were both unmistakeably his and also indisputably Haydn’s. Is the beginning of No 94 rather too slow – maybe. Crisp playing alleviates the suspicion somewhat as does the boldly filigree Andante, full of Beechamesque flourishes and roulades. Listen to the independence of the bass part in the Minuet – full of life and animation. Sensitive sectional shaping is a cardinal virtue of the finale to the Symphony as is superb flute playing and orchestral playing generally. I especially admired the excellently weighted gravity that announces the introduction of the Drumroll. Lissom strings at 3’50 are flexible and animated, Beecham managing to subsume the paragraphal points of the music into an admirably convincing symphonic statement. The genial and the grand co-exist in the slow movement – with gradations of dynamics and exemplary tonal nuance. The Finale is truly con spirito, taken with tremendous rhythmic impetus and equal orchestral clarity, essential elements of Beecham’s music-making and treasurable features of these remarkable performances.

Jonathan Woolf


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