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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
The London Symphonies
CD 1
Symphony No 93 in D major, Hob.I:93 (1791) [22:03]
Symphony No 94 in G major ‘Surprise’, Hob.I.94 (1791) [23:50]
Symphony No 95 in C minor, Hob.I:95 (1791) [20:17]
CD 2
Symphony No 96 in D major, Hob.I:96 (1791) [21:23]
Symphony No 97 in C major, Hob.I:97 (1792) [25:11]
Symphony No 98 in B flat major, Hob.I:98 (1792) [26:59]
CD 3
Symphony No 99 in E flat major, Hob.I:99 (1793) [27:17]
Symphony No 100 in D major ‘Military’, Hob.I:100 (1793/4) [23:40]
Symphony No 101 in D major ‘Clock’, Hob.I:101 (1793/4) [27:01]
CD 4
Symphony No 102 in B flat major ‘Miracle’, Hob.I:102 (1794) [23:12]
Symphony No 103 in E flat major ‘Drumroll’, Hob.I:103 (1795) [28:15]
Symphony No 104 in D major ‘London’, Hob.I:104 (1795) [28:03]
Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana/Howard Shelley
rec. Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland, August-September 2007 (93-96), May 2008 (97-100) and August-September 2008 (101-104)
HYPERION CDS44371-4 [4 CDs: 66:25 + 73:49 + 78:14 + 79:12]
Experience Classicsonline

Spending time in the company of Haydn’s 12 London Symphonies is really quite life-affirming. Seen rightly as the very pinnacle of classical perfection, they can be appreciated on a number of levels: tuneful, superbly crafted entertainments of the sort that so obviously appealed to his chic London audience; as forerunners of the revolutionary Beethoven canon to come; or as the witty, innovative and often profound late utterances of a supreme master. Whatever view you take, there really is something for everyone and every mood in these works.
 
In this, the composer’s 200th anniversary year, a flood of Haydn releases is bound to be forthcoming. Of course, there is already no shortage of excellent sets devoted to these 12 symphonies, so when approaching a new recording it has to be asked ‘do we really need this?’ In this case, I am inclined to say yes. Howard Shelley has done sterling work in the field of Classical repertoire over many years, with recommendable discs of Hummel, Spohr, Mozart and Clementi to name a few. One of the prized discs in my collection is a 1986 recording of Mozart Piano Concertos 21 and 24 with Shelley playing and conducting the London Mozart Players on the budget Pickwick label; it’s such cultured, stylish and civilised playing that it came as no surprise when the series was taken over by Chandos at full price.
 
He brings the same attributes to this new set of Haydn Symphonies with the Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiano, with whom he has recorded other things and with whom he obviously has a strong rapport. Stylistically what we get is fairly common today; modern instruments at modern pitch, but speeds that are fairly brisk most of the time, rhythms lightly sprung, hard sticks used for timpani and clear but judicious use of vibrato on strings and woodwind in a chamber-sized ensemble. It’s the sort of thing we get from Mackerras, Rattle and Abbado regularly now, modern versions with more than a nod towards period practice, and it often represents a happy medium for many people.
 
Interestingly, the two comparisons I had to hand were the classic Colin Davis ‘modern’ set with the Concertgebouw from the 70s and 80s, and the period instrument version from Franz Bruggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century from the early 90s, also on Philips and also recorded (live) in the Concertgebouw. Shelley is much nearer to Davis than Bruggen and at times, playing them side by side, the timings were very close indeed. Whether Shelley has been inspired by the Davis set, I don’t know, but his versions often sound like subtly different mirrors, with similar tempi and general phrasing. Of course there are differences, with Shelley’s orchestra having less fruity, slightly tangier woodwind, smaller body of strings that are just as sharp in attack and a more modern, clearer recording which just allows the last degree of inner detail to shine through. Perhaps ironically, Bruggen’s period performances sound more ‘romantic’ in conception, with broader slow introductions and generally slower minuets, though offset by often hair-raisingly fast finales. Of course, the period instruments – natural trumpets, small bore woodwind, hand horns, etc. - do make a difference, as does a complete lack of vibrato, but his main advantage is the dividing of his violins. I really wish Shelley had adopted this, as the wonderful antiphonal interplay of first and second fiddles is clearly something Haydn was enjoying exploiting, as in the development section of the first movement of Symphony 94 ‘The Surprise’ (around 3:34), and the many fugal passages that dot the symphonies.
 
Still, once one has got used to the rather ‘safe’ sound world and Shelley’s basic approach, there is much to enjoy. In fact, I can’t think of a single real downside that could upset anyone, unless they are expecting more ‘blatant’ period practices. All the symphonies are in a major key and have a slow introduction – except No 98 in C minor – and Shelley and his band don’t disappoint. The grandeur is there in spades, and as each ensuing allegro erupts, there is a wonderful spring in the step that is infectious. It reminds me of the sort of thing we used to get from Marriner and the Academy in the old days, and that really is praise. He doesn’t get quite the sheer racket from his ‘Turkish’ percussion (actually simply cymbals, triangle and bass drum) as Bruggen does in the allegretto of the ‘Military’ No.100, but there are very few other moments where he yields to the period performances. The miraculous first movement of No.102 – which some think the greatest of the set – is beautifully judged, and it’s maybe just the last degree of tone colour of period wind instruments that I miss. As mentioned earlier, Shelley’s percussionist does appear to employ hard sticks, especially noticeable in the famous opening drum roll that gives No.103 its nickname; he uses the older-fashioned thinking on dynamics, starting loudly followed by decrescendo, rather than Bruggen’s soft- crescendo-diminuendo, though I’m really not sure which is correct, and both sound effective. Talking of such things, I notice throughout little touches of ornamentation and dotted rhythms that aren’t in the Davis and are presumably to do with current scholarly practice. It’s all very slight but adds to the general freshness in these readings. Minuets are generally sprightlier than Bruggen, who is surprisingly lethargic in quite a few, and along with finales are very similarly paced to Davis, who himself is a model of good judgement. A wonderfully natural, unforced and fluent yet vital reading of the ‘London’ Symphony crowns a very satisfying experience.
 
This new set is actually more welcome than I first thought, sitting as it does comfortably between the more rugged, highly coloured Bruggen and the style and polish of Davis. The orchestra is very well caught by the engineers, with ample bloom and no unnecessary or false highlighting of instruments. There is an excellent booklet by the ever-reliable Haydn expert Richard Wigmore and, best of all, Hyperion are offering the set at budget price, a little over £20.00 for four discs. I also like the fact that the works are all laid out in numbered order across the discs, unlike Bruggen and Davis, where the sequence is split up for some reason. The Davis cycle is cheaper and still an obvious rival but the sound is not as rich or detailed, and the Bruggen appears unavailable at present. It is a very crowded market but I reckon Hyperion deserve to do well with this one.
 
Tony Haywood
 

 


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