Beecham’s 1950s recordings of Haydn’s London
have had several outings over the years. On CD they were issued in two volumes in the EMI Gemini
series several years ago, and also in a box set
, together with his oratorio The Seasons
in 2006. It is this identical ‘boxed’ package which has re-emerged, this time bearing the Warner logo. As readers will no doubt be aware, EMI was acquired by the Warner Music Group earlier this year. I see that Pristine also has a cycle in hand.
It was Johann Peter Salomon, the violinist and impresario, who persuaded Haydn to come to London. As a result, two visits took place, one in 1791-2 and the other in 1794-5. For each visit Haydn, the ‘Father of the Symphony’, composed six symphonies.
Symphonies 93-98, composed for the first London visit, were premiered in the Hanover Square Rooms using an orchestra led by Salomon, with Haydn at the keyboard. For the second visit, two years later, Symphonies 99-104 were given. Haydn was enthralled by the standard of the London orchestra, considering it technically superior to that of the Esterhazy household. This fact could well have determined his achieving new heights in his symphonic output with these works. The twelve London
Symphonies adhere to the classical four movement form. The first movements are in a brisk, lively tempo, being prefaced by a slow introduction - Symphony no. 95 being the exception. The slow movement usually comes second, followed by a Menuetto. The finales are lively and spirited, leaving the listener with a memorable ending. Humour, an identifiable Beecham trait, was also factored in. The loud chord in the slow movement of the Symphony no. 94 Surprise
was a mischievous ploy on Haydn’s part ‘to make the old ladies jump’.
Haydn symphonies were a passion for Beecham, and there are numerous recordings of them in his discography. He had a special affection for the London
Symphonies, and there are several examples of early recordings of single symphonies from the set. These can be found on labels such as Pearl, Dutton and Biddulph.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Beecham’s London
Symphony cycle held prime position in the LP catalogue. Since then, many fine sets have emerged by such conductors as Jochum, Karajan and Colin Davis. Then came the ‘period’ instrument offerings by Kuijken and Norrington, among others. So, there is a lot of competition out there.
Although the present performances may appear quite dated to some, Beecham’s exquisite grace, elegance and charm shines through. I love way he negotiates a phrase and adds that extra dash of panache and élan to the proceedings. The listener is always aware of that element of surprise. Symphony no. 96 Miracle
showcases the woodwind section in fine form, with the mellifluous and delicate flute and oboe lines being brought into relief in the slow movement. The finale is imbued with wit, zest and flamboyance. In Symphony no. 101, no-one can portray the quirky, jaunty character of the Clock
second movement like Sir Thomas.
On the down side these are weighty performances, the ‘slow movements’ being leaden and ponderous at times. So too with the minuets; some (the Drumroll
, nos 93 and 102) can seem pompous and overly grandiose. He omits the first movement exposition repeats, which adversely affects the balance. That said, he does observe repeats in the menuetto movements.
The first six symphonies (93-98) were recorded in mono, and the later six in stereo. I could not find any reference to this fact in the booklet notes. There is a noticeable difference between the two sets. The stereo recordings are less dull and grainy. There is sharper definition of sound, with more depth and space. I found the mono recordings quite light in the bass perspective, and with less clarity for the orchestra.
Included in this six CD package is The Seasons
. Haydn composed both his oratorios The Creation
and The Seasons
towards the end of his long life. Yet, The Creation
has always overshadowed The Seasons
in terms of popularity, number of performances and recordings. Spurred on and inspired by the popularity of Handel’s oratorios on his two visits to London, Haydn rose to the challenge, composing The Creation
and premiering it in 1798. Baron van Swieten, who assisted with the translation of the libretto encouraged Haydn to follow up on its success with a sequel. Reluctantly, citing old age and infirmity, Haydn finally accepted the challenge. Thus, The Seasons
came into being, the libretto being written by van Swieten. It is based on a secular subject found in the ‘The Seasons’ by the English poet James Thomson. Van Swieten introduced three rustic characters, Nancy, Lucas and Simon, who describe the changing seasons. It received its premiere in 1801.
For me, The Seasons
is the highlight of this set. Sung in English, it was recorded in excellent stereo. The recording had a long gestation period, begun in 1956; it was not completed until 1958. Purists may quibble at Beecham’s orchestration of the recitatives. Haydn had indicated keyboard accompaniments, but to my mind his interventions are very effective. He has also added such things as drums, to emphasize points in the score, and cymbals, triangles and tubular bells for effect. He used a much improved English translation of van Swieten’s libretto by Dennis Arundell, which he himself commissioned. Interestingly, Beecham gave only one concert performance of this work, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1950.
The three soloists offer distinguished interpretations of the score, and add to the bucolic splendour of the performance. I would single out Elsie Morison (soprano), who sings the part of Nancy. She delivers an ardent performance, with beauty of tone and elegant phrasing. My only criticism would be of the chorus. Due to the limitations of 1950s recording techniques, their diction lacks clarity and definition, and sounds stodgy and muddy most of the time. This performance is also available on a Somm CD (SOMM-BEECHAM 16-2). I have never heard this transfer to compare.
Beecham had great affinity with the Viennese classics, and these ‘old world’ performances still hold their own today in an age where much improved sound, ‘period’ performance and more enlightened scholarship have become the norm.
Masterwork Index: Haydn London symphonies
CD 1 [65:22]
Symphony No. 93 in D major [23:10]
Symphony No. 94 in G major Surprise
Symphony No. 95 in C minor [19:33]
CD 2 [70:41]
Symphony No. 96 in D major [21:36]
Symphony No. 97 in C major [23:44]
Symphony No. 98 in B flat major [25:20]
CD 3 [77:08]
Symphony No. 99 in E flat major [25:27]
Symphony No. 100 in D major Military
Symphony No. 103 in E flat major Drumroll
CD 4 [78:24]
Symphony No. 101 in D major Clock
Symphony No. 102 in B flat major Miracle
Symphony No. 104 in D major London
CDs 5-6 [72:08 + 72:07]