Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 85 in B flat, “La Reine de France” [22:46]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K. 414 [24:17]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93 [24:49]
Melvyn Tan (piano)
London Chamber Orchestra/Christopher Warren-Green
rec. 28 February 2007 (Mozart, Haydn), 26 June 2008 (Beethoven),
St John’s, Smith Square, London
LONDON CHAMBER ORCHESTRA LIVE SIGNUM RECORDS SIGCD175 [71:44]
It seems every orchestra in London has its own record label these days! The London Symphony Orchestra led the way with its pioneering LSO Live series, and the London Philharmonic followed suit with its own eponymous catalogue. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, too, has been issuing compilations of its own recordings, mostly from the vaults rather than recent live performances, and the Philharmonia cut a deal with Signum Classics to issue a new series of live recordings under conductors like Charles Mackerras and Christoph von Dohnanyi. Now the London Chamber Orchestra is entering the fray, also in tandem with Signum. I cannot help but wonder if a new record label called St. Martin-in-the-Fields is next!
Unfortunately, this new London Chamber Orchestra release is not as promising as one would hope. It contains two great symphonies, Haydn’s Eighty-Fifth (“La Reine de France”) and Beethoven’s Eighth, as brackets around a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12. These renditions must have sounded very fine in concert, and I can’t imagine anyone in the audience going home unhappy, but releasing them on compact disc puts them in direct competition with truly enormous numbers of predecessors and colleagues around the globe, many of whom, I regret to say, are more worthy of the CD shopper’s consideration.
Part of the problem is that I had to deal with thwarted expectations while listening. Melvyn Tan is a name I associate with the period-performance movement, especially since he has recorded the Beethoven piano concertos on a fortepiano with Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players, and many of the Beethoven sonatas on a Streicher fortepiano for Virgin Classics.
It seems that Tan began using modern pianos over a decade ago, so partly my surprise was a product of ignorance, but equally the fact that Tan’s playing here shows no sign whatever of his experience with the period-performance movement. The Mozart Concerto No. 12 is played in a full, very twentieth-century manner, with grand romantic gestures and very prettified solo playing. In terms of tempo, this performance (24:17) is almost exactly equal to older recordings by the more romantic pianists Jeno Jandó (23:41) and Robert Casadesus (24:15).
However, the fact that the concerto is given an old-fashioned performance is not an intrinsically bad thing; between period and mainstream performance standards there is, contrary to ideologues’ beliefs, no “right” or “wrong” position. I am just concerned that listeners, as inundated with choice as we are in this repertoire, will be keener on a recording with new ideas to offer. As well-polished and pretty-sounding as this Mozart is, it is not distinctive.
A similar problem infects the Haydn symphony; the London Chamber Orchestra is obviously quite good, and the flute solos of the slow movement are handled lovingly, but I again found myself yearning for more energy and more zest in the outer movements; the Minuet and Trio are, in fact, quite excellent. Sigiswald Kuijken and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, on period instruments, offer the energy I am looking for despite slower tempos overall.
The Beethoven Eighth is the best performance of the three by far; it is energetic, exciting, and very competently led, with a thrilling first movement climax and very well-paced finale. The second movement is rather too fast for my tastes, though, and I would suggest that the cellos deserve greater prominence in the orchestral balance - when the first movement’s theme re-enters at 5:17, it is only barely audible. Given that the lower strings are more assertive elsewhere, perhaps conductor Christopher Warren-Green asked them to hold back.
Even though I found this Beethoven performance quite satisfying, the question remains: why this performance? This, as it happens, is the fifth live recording of the Beethoven Eighth Symphony to be released on compact disc since the year 2004. The Berlin Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado issued a live recording from Rome; the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Charles Mackerras produced a Hyperion box set of the complete Beethoven symphonies from live concerts at the Edinburgh Festival; LSO Live released an Eighth with Bernard Haitink; Roger Norrington and the SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra, Stuttgart, recorded a live concert for release on Hänssler.
Of those four direct competitors, three (Norrington, Abbado and Mackerras) employed chamber orchestras or full orchestras pared down to chamber size for artistic reasons. And three studio recordings released since 2007 — led by conductors Thomas Dausgaard, John Nelson, and Paavo Järvi — also captured chamber orchestras in the Beethoven Eighth. I own or have heard all of these performances except Nelson’s; all are enjoyable and none are without virtue, but in a market in which seven energetic Beethoven Eighths deploying reduced-size orchestras can be issued on CD within five years of each other, a performance really has to stand out to be worthy of our attention. Those by Dausgaard and Mackerras do; the present London Chamber Orchestra recording does not.
It is hard to review discs like this. The performances are neither urgently recommendable nor deserving of an outright warning. Neither the Haydn, Mozart nor the Beethoven are strong enough to make this disc a necessity, but perhaps only the Haydn is weak enough not to be enjoyable. The sound quality is consistently excellent, and the insightful liner-notes are perhaps my favorite thing about the whole release. If the programme interests you, or if you are an admirer of the London Chamber Orchestra, this CD will have an added attraction, but otherwise, few listeners will regret not hearing it.