These two symphonies were composed for Haydn's second
visit to London, during the winter months of 1794-95. He knew the musicians
for whom he was writing, and they were a virtuoso ensemble. Therefore
these are among the largest scaled, most technically demanding among
all his symphonies.
Kuijken's performances are very direct and fresh. His
ensemble sounds on the small side for the music, which means that there
are fewer strings than there might be. How this would affect a live
performance would of course depend upon the size of the chosen venue.
In a recording, one can only judge on the end result, and while the
sound has good perspective and balance, the strings in both symphonies
do sound somewhat 'under nourished'. This may be the recording, may
be the playing, may be the lack of sufficient numbers to make an ample
sound in tuttis. On the other hand, it may well be intended.
Kuijken's band is full of splendid musicians, and they
play on original instruments. The strings use gut rather than wire,
and there is little bloom and less vibrato in their sound. Too little
of each for my taste, in fact, and in these symphonies this seems less
appropriate than it did in the companion performances of the earlier
Paris symphonies, composed during the previous decade.
Kuijken's tempi and phrasing are eminently sane and
deliver some exciting rhythmic purpose to proceedings. The fast sections
develop tellingly out of the slow introductions, and the overall balancing
of the movements is highly effective. In fact the music sounds best
in the two finales, which reveal the composer's uniquely bubbling wit.
Although the slow movements are expertly paced, in
No. 102 especially the lack of bloom in the string sound denies the
music some of its intensity and line. For this Adagio movement can stand
a slower, more eloquent expression than this. At face value what Kuijken
chooses is perfectly fine, but try alternatives such as Sir Colin Davis
and the Concertgebouw (Philips) or Eugen Jochum and the London Philharmonic,
and the extra richness pays dividends.
These performances have undoubted merits, and are recommended
particularly to enthusiasts devoted to the 'original instrument' sound.
For the more indulgent listener, it is probably best to try elsewhere.
In an ideal world, these do make excellent alternatives to the larger
collection, opening up fresh vistas on two great symphonies.