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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 88 in G (?1787) [20:05]
Symphony No. 89 in F (1787) [21:06]
Symphony No. 90 in C (1788) [26:27]
Symphony No. 90 in C: finale (alternative version) [6:50]
Symphony No. 91 in E flat (1788) [23:00]
Symphony No. 92 in G ‘Oxford’ (1789) [24:47]
Sinfonia concertante in B flat for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon (1792)* [21:24]
Toru Yasunaga (violin); Georg Faust (cello); *Jonathan Kelly (oboe); *Stefan Schweigert (bassoon)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 8-10, 14-17 February 2007, Philharmonie, Berlin. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 0946 3 94237 2 9 [75:47 + 69:31]

Sir Simon Rattle’s performances of the Austro-German classical repertoire have often occasioned critical controversy. His 2002 Beethoven symphony cycle, with the Wiener Philharmoniker, for example, was not liked by all. However, having recently acquired it, I’ve found much to enjoy in the symphonies (numbers 1-6) to which I’ve listened to date, even if I don’t agree with or care for absolutely every aspect of the performances. Haydn was an even earlier enthusiasm for Rattle. If memory serves me right he gave an interview on his appointment to lead the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in which he specifically mentioned a desire to include performances – and good, stylish ones – of Haydn’s works in his future repertoire with the orchestra. He made a CD of some of the symphonies with them, which I’ve not heard, and also, in 1990, a recording of The Creation (in English), which I like very much, not least for the radiant singing of Arleen Augér.

Now it seems that Rattle has taken his love of Haydn to Berlin. These performances were recorded at two successive sets of subscription concerts in the Philharmonie earlier this year, each programme being given three times on consecutive nights. When I checked on the orchestra’s website to see the order in which the symphonies were performed I was fascinated to see that, before these two sets of programmes Rattle had directed also a trio of performances of Die Schöpfung, at the beginning of February. So he really made that month into a miniature Haydn-fest. Incidentally, for those who are interested, Symphonies 88-90 were played, in numerical order, in the first set of concerts whilst numbers 91 and 92 featured in the second set of concerts, bisected by the Sinfonia concertante.

I may as well put my cards on the table at once and say that these strike me as being exceptionally fine, not to say ingratiating performances. The five symphonies are all delightful works, teeming with wit and grace, and though Rattle and his players most certainly don’t take the works lightly they perform them with a lightness of touch, much good humour and evident enjoyment. Like several other conductors of his generation Sir Simon has worked quite a bit with period instrument orchestras - in his case primarily with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. That shows through here. The sound is rich and pleasing, with a satisfyingly deep – but never muddy – bass at all times. Vibrato is not eschewed by the strings but it is used with discretion. The woodwind playing, which is sparkling throughout, is definitely modern in approach but it’s also clean and stylish. I doubt if the timpanist uses anything other than hard sticks throughout. I don’t wish to give the impression that this is the Berliner Philharmoniker simply aping the period instrument ensembles, for that would be grossly unfair. However, the crispness of articulation and the leanness of texture that informs the best period performances has clearly been taken on board in the preparation of these performances.

In a sense what we get here is the best of both worlds. There’s a proper awareness of period practice but this is a modern virtuoso orchestra putting its very considerable skills at Haydn’s service. And that’s something to be pleased about. I greatly enjoy good period performances and find them, at their best, stimulating and provocative. But I firmly believe that works such as the Haydn symphonies should not become the preserve of period bands and chamber orchestras playing on modern instruments. There’s still room for performances of these works by the modern symphony orchestra, as these recordings prove triumphantly.

One interesting reflection is the extent to which these symphonies have featured in the repertoire of the Berlin orchestra. I suspect that perhaps they’ve not played these works very often.. For example, I’m not aware that Karajan recorded much Haydn with the orchestra, except for the oratorios. I made some very brief comparisons with Karajan’s Berlin recording of Die Schöpfung, set down between 1966 and 1969. It was instructive to note how different the orchestra sounds. Under Karajan the sound has more sheen, with the strings singing much more sweetly than is the case in Rattle’s readings here. Karajan’s is ‘Big Band’ Haydn whereas Rattle’s is more lithe and slim. In making the comparison I’m not saying one approach is right and the other wrong; both are valid in their own terms.

Throughout these performances I find Rattle to be a fine judge of tempo. The first movement of number 88, for example, is beautifully paced and articulated. The delectable slow movement of the same symphony is affectionately phrased – but the eruptions into the texture of trumpets and drums make a terrific contrast with the graceful music that surrounds them, as Haydn surely intended. Rattle brings a sophisticated earthiness to the minuet of this symphony and I love the touch of mock heaviness in the trio with its musette-like drones. The carefree finale breezes along, featuring some sparkling work from the woodwind principals.

Jump to number 90 and we find scurrying winds and hyperactive strings deployed in the bright, vivacious allegro of the first movement. In the slow movement my ear was caught in particular by the grateful part for the first bassoon, an instrument for which Haydn seems to have had a great affection to judge by some of the music he wrote for it. In the trio of the minuet it’s the turn of the principal oboe to shine and the playing is quite delicious. The scampering finale shows again the tremendous agility of the entire woodwind section. This movement features one of Haydn’s practical jokes with not one but two false endings. On this occasion the Berlin audience falls for it both times and there’s applause followed by laughter as they realise that Haydn – and Rattle – have gently conned them. At the (proper) end of the finale the applause is retained - to do otherwise would have been silly. But this made me wonder why applause has been edited out after all the other works in the set. I know some people don’t like applause on CDs but, for me, if a live performance has been recorded then why not include a modest amount of audience reaction? The disc contains a second performance of the finale of this symphony, presumably recorded with no audience present but I have to say this seems a rather pointless exercise and the false endings sound sterile without an audience.

Symphony 91 includes as its slow movement a set of variations, aptly described by annotator Richard Wigmore as “beguiling”. The theme itself is quite simple but Haydn’s invention around it is marvellous. Once again he features the bassoon, giving the instrument an extended solo, which is here played with lovely mellow tone. There’s a particularly fluent minuet and then our old friend, the bassoonist, is prominent once more in the gorgeous ländler trio. The finale shows us the Berliners at their very best. There’s real life in the way they play this movement, not least in the precise way that accents are delivered.

The last of these symphonies, the ‘Oxford’, is probably the best known of the set. Rattle manages to get genuine tension into the first movement’s slow introduction, thereby whetting our appetites. The main body of the movement then teems with life and energy. He brings grace and pathos to the slow movement and I relished the refinement of the orchestral playing hereabouts, especially at the end of the movement. The minuet is more vigorous than those we’ve heard heretofore. The offbeat trio is unusual; it’s a real ear tickler, showing Haydn’s propensity to tease. Finally the finale bristles with energy and momentum.

To complete the set we’re given the Sinfonia concertante with, I presume, four of the orchestra’s principals as soloists. For me, one of the key features of this performance is the way in which the soloists play as a team and play off each other. They’re particularly sensitive in their playing of the slow movement, a piece that radiates genial charm. The finale has relaxed gaiety. This work isn’t one of Haydn’s most profound; rather, it’s an entertainment and that’s just how it comes across here.

Many years ago, when Decca released on LP the last volume in Antal Dorati’s pioneering complete Haydn symphony cycle I remember a letter to the editor of Gramophone magazine in which the writer expressed his delight at having all the symphonies available. He said that from now on his “perfect therapy” at the end of the working day would be to listen to one of these symphonies, led by Dorati, while sipping a glass of sherry. I hope that gentleman is still alive today and enjoying his Haydn and his sherry. If he is I hope he will invest also in this sparkling new set from Sir Simon Rattle.

I’ve been richly entertained by these performances, recorded with exemplary clarity by EMI Classics, and I hope that many other collectors will derive similar pleasure from them. We live in troubling and often pressurised times and more than ever it’s good to be able to listen to music such as this for pure, unadulterated pleasure. This is a set to lift the spirits.

John Quinn



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