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CD: Crotchet

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 31 in D major ‘Hornsignal’ (1765) [32:26]
Symphony No. 59 in A major ‘Fire’ (c.1767/8) [21:05]
Symphony No. 73 in D major ‘La Chasse’ (c.1780/1) [23:34]
Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. Casino Zögernitz, Vienna, December 1992 (73), October-November 1993 (31, 59). DDD
DAS ALTE WERK 2564 690550 [77:42]
Experience Classicsonline

This reissue translates recordings previously available on the Warner Elatus label to their Alte Werk 50th-anniversary series. Apart from the use of round-cornered SACD-type cases, which I almost invariably find have been slightly damaged in the post, the CD remains as recommendable now as before. Indeed, the still life artwork on the cover is preferable to the nondescript Elatus and Apex covers.

These are three highly enjoyable named symphonies in good performances at mid price. When you consider that the named works are often among Haydn’s best, and that these are no exception, this looks like a pretty good offer.

There is more than one way with Haydn, as a comparison of Harnoncourt’s version of Symphony No. 31with Nimbus’s highly regarded Adam Fischer account makes very clear. (Symphonies Nos. 21-39, A and B, on NI5683-7, 5 CDs).

First, there’s the natural horns of the Concentus Musicus, especially noticeable if you start to play the CD at your normal listening level. It’s known as mit dem Hornsignal, or Hornsignal symphony because of that opening fanfare and the prominent horn parts throughout, so it’s only right that the effect should be stunning. It’s a bit in-your-face, but I’m all for natural horns in this repertoire, provided that they’re properly tamed: played in tune, as they are here.

At first the Fischer version sounds a little tame by comparison, with the horns more integrated into the sound-picture. I expected to emerge from listening to the two performances of the first movement, Building a Library style, with a clear preference for Harnoncourt. If I have to plump, I suppose it would have to be Harnoncourt, both in this movement and in the symphony as a whole, but I can - and shall - live happily with both. An older Hungarian recording with the Liszt Chamber Orchestra conducted by Janos Rolla, with which I lived happily for several years, now sounds very understated by comparison, though it might still make a decent budget recommendation if reissued in the lowest price category (Hungaroton HRC088, no longer available).

Then there’s the length of the symphony in Harnoncourt’s version. Whereas Fischer takes 4:55 for the first movement, Harnoncourt runs to 7:20, not because he’s impossibly slow but because he observes all the repeats. Similarly, in the second movement, Fischer’s 6:24 compares with Harnoncourt’s 9:23. The advantage of Harnoncourt’s approach is to give these two movements their full weight against the shorter Minuet and the Finale, the latter of which runs to around 10 minutes in both versions; it’s perfectly arguable that Fischer’s way with repeats makes this final movement seem too important.

As on Harnoncourt’s other Haydn recordings, you get a roller-coaster ride in his version of No. 31 - on the edge of your seat in places and marvelling at the pure lyricism in others. With Fischer, you’ll have a more civilised experience; he never pulls the tempi around as Harnoncourt does. You pays your money and you takes your pick: I’m afraid that I shall just give you the facts and sit this one out on the fence, except to point out the financial implications.

The downside of Harnoncourt’s observing all repeats is that you get more music for your bucks with Fischer. The Alte Werk CD could hardly have squeezed on more music at 77:42, but you still only get three symphonies, whereas Nimbus offer four or five symphonies on each disc in the set. I must admit that I’d have taken that into account myself if I hadn’t received both versions free as a reviewer.

It used to be believed that Symphony No. 59 obtained its fiery nickname from its association with Großmann’s play Die Feuersbrunst, but that belief no longer seems to hold water. Whatever the reason - like most of the nicknames, it didn’t originate with Haydn himself - it’s an enjoyable work and it receives a very good performance here, with fewer extremes than No. 31. Apart from a lively and enjoyable first movement, tempi throughout are very similar to those of Müller-Brühl with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra on a recommendable CD of Nos. 41, 58 and 59 (Naxos 8.557092) and to those of Vilmos Tátrai with the Hungarian Chamber Orchestra on a deleted Hungaroton recording which also offers La Chasse and which would be well worth resurrecting on a bargain label (HRC103, Symphonies 49, 59 and 73).

I might have preferred Harnoncourt, avowedly an authenticist, to have used a harpsichord, here and in No. 31 and maybe even in No. 73 - after all, Haydn added a prominent harpsichord part to the finale of Symphony No. 98, a joke which would have had no point if its use had not still been common at that late date. I’m certainly not, however, going to write off these generally attractive performances for the lack of it.

It’s the finale of No. 73 that gets it the hunting nickname, La Chasse. Some performances take just over four minutes for this movement, whereas Harnoncourt takes 5:11. The opening does sound a little measured but one soon adjusts; after all, it’s a hunt, where the last thing the participants want to happen would be to break a neck, so a break-neck tempo could be deemed inappropriate. Harnoncourt isn’t the slowest interpreter of this movement: Bela Drahos with the Esterházy Sinfonia takes 5:49, which, in my book, makes this CD one of the least effective in Naxos’s generally very worthwhile series of the Haydn symphonies. (Nos. 70, 71 and 73, 8.555708). Fey, on the other hand, opens at breakneck speed and then pulls the tempo around in places. I think he is a little too extreme here; though he takes just a few seconds less than Harnoncourt, he’s fast and furious in places and there’s just too much rubato for my taste here in an otherwise very good performance.

Harnoncourt is especially effective in pointing Haydn’s little trick, some 40 seconds before the end of the movement, of making the listener think it’s all over. Blum doesn’t leave a long enough gap for the joke to be effective. He’s also effective with the trick in the slow introduction to the first movement where Haydn twice comes to a full stop; that’s easier to pull off, though I don’t think Thomas Fey is quite so effective in his otherwise very fine version with the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra (Hänssler 98.517) which I recommended in my June 2009 Download Roundup. As in the comparison of No. 31, the choice is between Harnoncourt’s occasionally wayward but totally defensible performance and Fey’s greater predictability. You won’t get any shocks with Fey, unless you react negatively to his tempo changes in the finale. I must admit that I’m just a little less enthusiastic about this version than I was, having compared it with Harnoncourt.

Those older Tátrai versions of Nos. 59 and 73 would be worth reissuing at budget price, but are not really competitive with Harnoncourt. My choice of a recording of La Chasse must, however, rest unhelpfully with another performance which is no longer available - David Blum’s version with the Esterházy Orchestra, one to which I frequently return.

Blum’s handling of the Andante in particular calls for comparison with the ticking clock in the Clock symphony, emphasising the extent to which the London symphonies, far from standing apart from the earlier works, are actually a consummation of them. He combines the Menuetto and the Finale on one track lasting 7:09; his cut-down account of the Minuet is a little too fast for my taste but his Finale, though fast, is never helter-skelter. These Blum performances, formerly on the Vanguard label, really ought to be reissued. La Chasse came generously coupled with Nos. 39, 70 and 75 on 08.9061.71.

If Harnoncourt’s coupling appeals, don’t hesitate. If you’d prefer to test-drive it and can stand the intrusive advertising on each track, you can listen to the earlier Elatus issue of this recording free on We7. If you like it, as I’m sure you will, you should also try the Apex coupling at budget price of Symphonies Nos. 30, 53 and 69 - highly recommended by Kevin Sutton - in case that, too, is transferred to the higher-priced 50th-anniversary label. Even more inexpensively, offer Harnoncourt’s versions of Nos. 45 and 60 as a download for a mere £2.79 and iTunes have Symphony No. 68 and the ‘London’ Symphonies, a 5-CD set, for £10.99.

Brian Wilson 


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