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CD: Forgotten Records

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 49 in F minor, La Passione (1768) [21:00]
Symphony No. 103 in E flat major, Drum Roll (1795) [27:03]
Symphony No. 104 in D major, London (1795) [30:11]
London Mozart Players/Harry Blech
rec. 1952 (Symphony 49), 1955 (Symphonies 103-4), ADD

Experience Classicsonline

Symphony 49 will be the least well known of the three on this CD. It is as striking as the others owing to its sustained solemnity of sorrow that as its nickname suggests depicts Christ’s Passion. Harry Blech’s fine judgement of tempo brings to the opening slow movement (tr. 1) a degree of animation which creates a pained yet not hectoring insistency to its sequences in semiquavers. The second theme (1:44) has a more humane aspect and the exposition’s codetta (2:23) delivers a sudden, piercing intensity as the first violins break into the upper register. The development (3:10) begins in that register and is in the manner of a soulful aria. The harrowing experience is completed by a coda which brings the suffering directly to you (5:38). Blech conveys all this expressively, even if the London Mozart Players’ string texture is rather darker, richer, more romantic than we are used to nowadays. The following Allegro di molto (tr. 2) has a grim relish in its octave leaps with a second theme’s attempted relaxed sequences (0:20) and third theme’s graceful roundedness (1:00) rebuffed before its fiery close.

The fullish body of Blech’s strings makes the forthright projection of the Minuet (tr. 3) more oppressive in its gloomy cast. Its seriousness is emphasised by a coda to the second strain (1:26), at first pleading, then resolute and finally reflective. The Trio, the sole excursion in the work to F major, offers a brief sunny interlude as the first horn climbs heavenwards at the end of both sections. Quiet opening notwithstanding, Blech’s finale is suitably stark with determined progression, well phrased and detailed, and the urgency its Presto marking suggests.

I compared some Haydn of the period, also in mono but perhaps more familiar, the 1953 recording by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Hermann Scherchen in a boxed set of his Haydn recordings (Deutsche Grammophon 471 256-2). His opening movement, timing 8:48 in comparison with Blech’s 7:06, is a more marked Adagio but thereby appears comparatively self-conscious, every sigh staged, albeit beautifully played and full of pathos, more romantic than the more classical Blech. His second movement is crisper and more waspish. His Minuet is more grittily purposeful than Blech’s but the plainer presence of its horns’ sustained notes is less telling. Scherchen’s Trio, however, is quieter yet more serene. His finale is even more driven and tense than Blech’s but ends too abruptly without its second half repeat which Blech supplies. Throughout the work Scherchen has the advantage of clearer sound that reveals Haydn’s dynamic contrasts. There’s a veiled quality to the Decca Blech recording.

Happily, turning to the other symphonies on this CD which Blech recorded for EMI the sound is brighter and more transparent. Blech’s austere treatment of the introduction of the Drum roll symphony with its reference to the Dies irae chant, has a sense of experience of troubled times; yet having come through these makes the Allegro the more vivacious, as full of joie de vivre as any I’ve heard. Then the return of the drum roll shows the troubles are still kept in mind. Blech’s slow movement (tr. 6) has a feel of eagerness to develop despite the C minor key because of its fine and expressive phrasing. This is a double set of variations in which C minor alternates with C major, the first C major variation (2:06) immediately more content and secure. Yet, as in the first movement, the minor key material returns (3:04). The oboe pleads to the strings, joined by flute and bassoon. In this performance there’s a heartening sense of individuals trying to cheer the atmosphere. The second C major variation (4:27) offers a violin solo, a focus for more sustained individual brightness. The third C minor variation (5:25) is generally stiffer, but still has its softer, again pleading moments. The third C major one (6:28) brings a balmy duet for oboes with flute arabesques above, a firmly bright tutti leading to more lightly scored, quieter passages, lovingly lingered over and expanded before an affirmative tutti close. Blech brings a committed expressiveness to the performance of all these features and thereby clarifies the surprising range of mood within the overall flow. Blech’s Minuet is bright and grand, his Trio nonchalant yet with a natural feel to it. Blech’s finale has a pleasing combination of relaxation and breezy festivity; at the same time you feel every note matters.

Again I compared Scherchen whose recording of this work was made in 1951 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. His first movement takes 10:00 in comparison with Blech’s 8:14. Thereby Scherchen’s introduction has less shape, begins to seem interminable and even puts the brakes a little on the Allegro, albeit daintily fashioned. Scherchen’s slow movement at 10:41 is more dogged than Blech’s 9:13, with a rustic, peasant feel in its stealthy start and heavy accents. Rusticity is more appropriate for the bouncing Minuet contrasted by a Trio of abstract musing. Scherchen’s finale is smoother in opening than Blech’s and has a grander, more sonorous peroration. Blech is lighter, yet incisive, more humorous, but no less joyous. Blech seems closer to what we’d now recognize as period instrument style performance.

Blech’s London symphony is equally impressive. Its introduction is a clear cut contrast between the affirmation of its tuttis and feeling of its strings’ reflective responses. Blech’s Allegro is a fluent, scintillating progression yet there’s also ample punch in the development’s angry declamation of the six-note motif derived from the initially benign first theme. Blech’s slow movement is suave, smooth and urbane, played with warmth and affection and wonderfully expansive towards and at the climax of the second half of the melody. Yet again the strength of Haydn’s contrast is clear in the toughness of Blech’s sinewy G minor central episode. Blech gives us a fresh, sprightly Minuet and sinuous, graceful Trio. His finale is frolicsome and festive, at a hair-raising pace. Again I compared Scherchen, recorded in 1952 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. His introduction is even more contrasted but in being so becomes more romantic than classical while his heavier Allegro lacks Blech’s lustre. Scherchen’s slow movement is quieter, more coy, but too knowing and his slower tempo makes for a rather sentimental close. Scherchen finds more majesty and power in the Minuet where Blech’s timpani are too tame. Scherchen’s Trio has more nuance in the beguiling way he leans on the opening four-note motto, yet Blech has more blithe flow. Scherchen’s finale is grander but slows down to emphasise still further the already more sustained second theme (tr. 12 1:09 in Blech’s recording). I find Blech more classical and convincing.

Documentation is skimpy: there are no notes, though internet links are cited. Incorrect prefixes are supplied for original (at least UK) catalogue numbers: LTX should be LXT and CPL should be CLP. But unquestionably these are undeservedly forgotten recordings. I found myself regretting that Haydn isn’t played like this now. Today presentation is lighter, more elegant, but Blech conveys so well the feeling behind the classical restraint.

Michael Greenhalgh




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