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CD: Crotchet


Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
CD 1
Symphony No. 94 in G, “Surprise” (1791) [24:04]
Symphony No. 95 in C minor (1791) [20:46]
Symphony No. 97 in C (1792) [25:15]
CD 2
Symphony No. 99 in E flat (1794) [26:57]
Symphony No. 101 in D, “Clock” (1794) [29:38]
English Chamber Orchestra/Jeffrey Tate
rec. Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, England, February 1991 (CD1); May 1988 (CD2). DDD.
CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 5218552 [70:54 + 57:02]
Experience Classicsonline

During the time when the historically-informed period instrument scholars and performers were revolutionizing the modern performing practices of baroque and classical music, one conductor made a name for himself. He did this without ever completely abandoning a more old-fashioned style. That conductor was Jeffrey Tate, and his work remains compelling because the passage of years proves that Tate’s style wasn’t merely a reactionary retreat from the coming wave. It was nothing more and nothing less than the personal vision of a musician who aimed to combine courtly elegance with a thoughtful understanding of where the music is going. As such, this Classics For Pleasure reissue of five of Haydn’s London Symphonies is very much of a piece with Tate’s other recordings: Conservative, but lucidly alert.
Tate’s unhurried but never stolid or stiff way through the Surprise Symphony is uncommonly elegant. Compared to Georg Szell, Tate is more flexible, more smiling. Compared to Sir Colin Davis, Tate is lighter, more gleaming. Whereas Szell or Adam Fischer punch the surprise to a greater extreme in the slow movement, Tate makes his impact more fastidiously, making sure that the orchestra plays together, something not always heard on this famous chord: listen to the otherwise fine Antal Dorati recording to hear the bassoon beat everyone else to the chord by a fraction of a second. The “Menuetto” of the Surprise Symphony is revealing of Tate’s way. Dorati roughs it up a little to emphasize its peasant, ländler-like qualities. Davis fusses over its phrasing, and Szell plays it fast and clipped, like a Beethovenian scherzo. Tate is dapper as ever. He concentrates on the flow of the musical logic more naturally integrating the staccato upbeat notes that stick out in the Davis recording because of the somewhat heavy-handed tempo.
For overall elegance, I found myself digging all the way back to the 1929 recording Jascha Horenstein made of the work with the Berlin Philharmonic. But Tate trumps that version, too, thanks to a greater certainty on how to pace the slow sections. Horenstein, perhaps under the influence of Furtwängler in those days, paces the “Andante” more like an “Adagio”. Elsewhere, Horenstein’s natural classicism and clarity makes his rendition hold its age well in every way except recorded sound, which cannot, of course, compare to Tate’s modern digital sound. For a compromise between Szell’s thrust and Tate’s joyfulness, I would recommend the live Marlboro Festival recording from the early 1970s led by Pablo Casals except that its original coupling was a punchy and overwrought Symphony No. 95. It’s hard to find, anyway.
In Symphony No. 95, Szell makes more of the way the work foreshadows Beethoven. One hardly misses that element in Tate’s performance, except possibly in the “Menuetto,” where Szell’s spicy handling of the folk-music element gives the mischievous dance an almost Hungarian dash. Tate’s elegance is similar to the gleaming clarity of the RCA recording Fritz Reiner made with a studio orchestra in the early 1960s, though Tate has a touch more sparkle. Dorati is at his least persuasive in this symphony and doesn’t enter into competition.
Likewise, in Symphony No. 97, Szell leans toward grandeur in the first three movements, only letting an operatic sense of humor and adventure come into the “Finale.” Tate is more equable throughout, finding more bustling good nature in the first movement, and finding much more grace in the slow movement. Tate’s “Menuetto” is lighter on its feet, and his finale is witty, if not as boisterous as Szell’s. Incidentally, aside from the familiar late-1960s Szell recording available on Sony’s Essential Classics, the label’s wonderful but egregiously short-lived Masterworks Heritage series gave the first CD release to a feistier 1957 stereo recording by Szell and the Clevelanders. The sound is a little close-up, but the performance was not matched in the later remake. The first movement is more focused, and the middle movements flow better than in the later recording, while the finale is even faster, with devilish high spirits. Either way, Tate’s recording is a distinct alternative.
Tate and Szell interestingly diverge in unexpected ways in Symphony No. 99. Here, Tate is more operatic and mischievous in the first movement, but then unexpectedly broad and serious in the “Adagio,” which Szell flows through. Tate is lighter in the third movement, but similarly precise in the tricky “Finale.” Possibly the finest of Dorati’s recordings of later symphonies is his Symphony No. 99, as it combines more vigor than either Szell or Tate. But for the “ultimate” first movement of this work, make sure to investigate the blazing mono recording Hermann Scherchen made with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra for Westminster in the mid-1950s. Beecham is dapper in this work, but Tate matches much of the old master’s flair, while giving us a considerably more limber flexibility.
My favorite modern-instruments version of the Clock Symphony is Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic, a high-spirited affair which balances personality with an elegance not always associated with that conductor. Tate isn’t far off in his sparkling version, and both are considerably ahead of the sluggish Dorati and the ponderous Beecham.
Despite a first impression of excessive politeness in these recordings, repeated listening has revealed the subtle delights of Tate’s renditions. Direct comparisons with admired masters such as Szell, Beecham, Davis and Dorati reveals Tate showing them up more often than one might suspect. Indeed, one could say that Tate took those conductors’ traditional approach but lightened and clarified it. In the end, I can’t describe these recordings as anything less than first-class, and one hopes EMI will bring out the rest of Tate’s London Symphonies in this super-bargain series, because anyone who loves Haydn will want these charming, masterful renditions.
Mark Sebastian Jordan


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