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Joseph HAYDN (1732–1809)
Symphony No. 102 in B-flat (‘London Symphony No. 9’) [23:39]
Symphony No. 103 in E-flat (‘Paukenwirbel’, ‘Drumroll’) [29:42]
Mozarteumorchrester, Salzburg/Ivor Bolton
rec. Dorothee Porsche Saal, Odeïon Kulturforum, Salzburg, 17-19 May 2011. DDD

If, as seems possible, Oehms are edging slowly towards a Haydn series from the Mozarteum Orchestra and Ivor Bolton, this latest release suggests that it should be competitive. Provided, that is, that they give us better measure in future, when the norm nowadays is for three mature symphonies per disc. Their previous issue, containing Symphonies Nos. 60, 88 and 96 (OC736) did just that, running to a respectable 67:50. One of my benchmarks listed below also plays for less than an hour, but that’s at budget price.
The combination of orchestra and conductor was enough for me to have high expectations of this CD, especially as Göran Forsling wrote highly of their earlier recording of Die Schöpfung (The Creation: OC609 – review).
My benchmarks for these two symphonies are:
Nos.102 and 103:
  • EMI Gemini 5855132 (2 CDs) RPO/Sir Thomas Beecham (with Nos. 99-101 and 104). See November 2011/2 Roundup. This would still be my Desert Island selection, even though Beecham employs outdated editions which had already been superseded at the time of recording. There’s also a volume of earlier recordings of Nos. 93-98 (mono only, but still sounding well).

  • Decca 442 6112 (2 CDs) Concertgebouw Orchestra/Colin Davis (with 96, 97, 98 and 104). This and the Jochum constitute the safest option for Haydn played on modern instruments. Again, another 2-CD sets contains Haydn’s other London symphonies.

  • DG Collectors Edition 474 3642 (5 CDs) LPO/Eugen Jochum (with Nos. 93-101 and 104, plus earlier BPO/Bavarian RSO recordings of Nos. 88, 91 and 98). No longer available generally on CD except from (US) or; download from there or from German iTunes. The unavailability of this set in the UK is most regrettable.
No.102 only:
  • Hyperion CDH55127 – Hanover Band/Roy Goodman (with No.101). See November 2011/2 Roundup. There’s no No.103 in this incomplete series of the Haydn symphonies.

  • Hänssler 98.582 – Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Fey (with No. 89 and Sinfonia Concertante).

It’s a measure of the quality of these recordings that I immediately thought to compare them with Beecham, Jochum and Davis, such is the joie de vivre that they communicate. Though the Mozarteum Orchestra employ modern instruments, they do so in such a manner that even lovers of period instruments, as on the Hyperion recording, won’t necessarily be put off.
There are real benefits to be found in period performance even of these late London symphonies and I’d direct you to the Hyperion recording unless you are put off by having a fortepiano fairly audibly reinforcing the textures – the evidence as to whether this was the custom at the London concerts is inconclusive, though the fact that Haydn clearly expected a keyboard player to be present in No.98 in order to play his little joke at the end suggests to me that it was.
Among recent recordings of No.102 the obvious comparison is with Thomas Fey’s recently released (2012) Volume 18 of his continuing series. I listened to this in a lossless download, complete with booklet from and enjoyed it, though it’s fair to add that it’s by no means free from idiosyncrasies – as is common with this series there are some tempo changes and examples of holding back the beat that won’t be to all tastes. Overall tempi are well chosen, however – in fact there are only very minor differences between Fey and Bolton, though their overall agreement for the third movement disguises a very fast minuet and slow trio from Fey – but if you’re looking for a version that is unlikely to irritate you, go for Bolton.
If that seems to imply that Bolton’s performance is safe but rather nondescript, like those Haydn performances that you hear on Radio 3 in the afternoon and think unexceptionable but unmemorable, that’s not the case. Fey challenges us to think about the music in a way that can be both illuminating and irritating; as Michael Greenhalgh wrote in his review of Volume 9 (Hänssler 98.517), he’s best in Haydn’s more zany works, as in the false ending of the finale of No.102. Bolton doesn’t challenge us for good or ill, at least not to that extent, so his recording ultimately receives the clear central recommendation.
No.103 opens with the drum roll which gives it its nickname and here I think Ivor Bolton and the Mozarteum Orchestra immediately score even over Beecham in going to town, literally and figuratively on a roll and much more forwardly recorded. As the notes point out, there is evidence that the drum roll would have been treated as a kind of cadenza; that’s exactly what they do and it sounds very effective, especially as it sounds as if hard sticks are employed. They are equally good at capturing the mood of the adagio introduction – perhaps the lower strings are not quite so growly as for Beecham, but there’s not much in it.
Bolton takes the second movement at a fastish pace for an andante, but Haydn moderates that marking with più tosto allegretto and the chosen tempo works quite well. Beecham coaxes more out of the music, though, by giving it 40 seconds longer, I don’t think it’s simply the habit of acquaintance that makes me cleave to his performance though I owned his recording on LP 50 years ago. Davis splits the difference almost exactly; perhaps his or Jochum’s recording is the ideal compromise, though I could be perfectly happy with any of the four performances taken in its own context.
Beecham and Davis both come at budget price on 2-CD sets and the Jochum is also in a budget-price box or download, if you can find it, so all three have a clear price advantage over the new Oehms release, which, as I’ve I intimated, is frankly rather poor value with just 54 minutes playing time for full price.
The recording is good; digital sound gives it a clear advantage over the principal rivals. If I have a criticism it is that it makes the orchestra sound larger than life – more so than on the earlier Oehms recording (below) – but Haydn designed these final symphonies on a large scale, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you like even late Haydn to sound cleaner in texture, you’ll find the Hänssler recording of No.102 more to your liking.
The notes in the booklet are adequate, though there’s more about the history of the Mozarteum Orchestra and Ivor Bolton’s career than on the music.
I also listened via Naxos Music Library to these performers’ earlier Haydn symphonies recording on OC736 and thought it, if anything, even more enjoyable than the new CD, partly because of the variety, with music from three periods of Haydn’s creative life.
There’s not a great deal in it in terms of performance, but the approach is just a shade lighter, so that Nos. 88 and 96, two of my favourite Haydn symphonies, come close to challenging the best versions that I know. At 5:52 Bolton takes the slow movement of No. 88 a shade faster than Jochum (6:15) but he sounds slower because he adopts a more affective approach. That doesn’t mean that he wrings the emotion out unduly and his approach is justified by the largo marking, yet my vote for this movement (just) remains with Jochum. Once again, ‘straight’ performances from Bolton and his Salzburg orchestra doesn’t mean boring.
In sum, then, both of these Oehms recordings are eminently desirable. On the new release a special performance of No.103 is coupled with a very satisfying account of its predecessor. Only my grumble about the playing time prevents the fullest praise.
Brian Wilson