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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No 92 in G major, ‘Oxford’ [27:24]
Symphony No 93 in D major [23:06]
Symphony No 97 in C major [26:19]
Symphony No 98 in B flat major [27:18]
Symphony No 99 in E flat major [28:47]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. live, 2 and 4 October 2011 (92); 11 and 13 December 2011 (93); 6 and 9 May 2010 (97); 4 and 6 December 2011 (98); 26 May and 2 June 2011 (99), The Barbican, London. DSD
LSO LIVE LSO0702 SACD [76:49 + 56:05]

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s Sir Coin Davis recorded all twelve of Haydn’s ‘London’ symphonies for Philips with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. They were reissued as two-disc sets in the Philips Duo series some time ago (442 614-2 and 442 614-2) and I think they are still available. Here we have live recordings of five late Haydn symphonies taken from performances given towards the end of his career. I’d argue that you should acquire this pair of new discs even if you have the RCO recordings – or intend to acquire them while they’re still obtainable. For one thing the new set includes the ‘Oxford’ symphony, which wasn’t recorded in Amsterdam. More significantly, there is an important difference between the two sets and that’s all to do with the sound of the respective orchestras.
 
I think I’m correct in believing that the Philips performances were recorded under studio conditions. That presumably means that the Concertgebouw was empty. Certainly the Philips recordings appear to have been set down in a larger acoustic than that of the Barbican and I wonder if the band may have been slightly larger – perhaps one extra desk of strings per section – than was the case in London. The acoustic of the Barbican has sometimes come in for criticism – though I’ve usually found it satisfactory at the very least. Here the tighter acoustic as compared with the Concertgebouw pays dividends. The LSO Live sound is by no means oppressive but the players seem to be a bit closer and the performances are just a bit more immediate. I have absolutely no intention of disposing of my copies of the RCO sets, which are very distinguished, but I’m delighted to have these new performances to set beside them.
 
There may be a few nuances that are different as between the Amsterdam and London performances but what unites them is the guiding hand of a perceptive and above all stylish Haydn conductor. These performances just feel right. In both Amsterdam and London Davis benefited from top-drawer orchestral playing.
 
The ‘Oxford’ Symphony is completely successful. The Allegro spirituoso is indeed spirited yet, as we shall find so often in these performances, Davis manages to invest fast music with energy and momentum without ever rushing it off its feet. The slow movement is beautifully shaped and Sir Colin earns our thanks firstly by not treating the Adagio as an easy-paced andante – yet the music is not paced too slowly – and then by making it wonderfully apparent that there’s a second word in Haydn’s tempo indication: cantabile. The LSO’s silky strings and lovely woodwinds ensure that the music genuinely sings. In the words of annotator Lindsay Kemp the third movement is ‘grand but graceful’, which is how it sounds here, and I lovely the quirkily offbeat horns in the trio. Haydn’s brilliant finale twinkles and scampers. My colleague, Mark Berry reviewed one of the concerts from which this performance has been edited for Seen and Heard.
 
The other four performances are at the same high level of accomplishment. In number 93 I admired the vigour and rhythmic energy that Davis imparts in the first movement while the fresh and inventive finale is given a high-spirited, lively reading. In number 97, which was reviewed for Seen and Heard by Geoff Diggines I like the apposite mixture of grace and energy that Davis brings to the opening Allegro assai – I think this performance is a bit more lithe than his Concertgebouw reading. I love the delectable woodwind contributions in the trio of the third movement while there’s lots of brio in the way the LSO delivers the sparkling finale.
 
Turning to number 98 Davis’s excellent account of the first movement catches the grandeur without ever so much as flirting with sluggish speed. The theme of the Adagio has more than a hint of ‘God Save the Queen’ to it; was this intentional? Davis gets just the right degree of solemnity here and the phrasing is exquisite. The Menuetto is sprightly – and who could resist the delectable bassoon playing in the trio? The witty finale is urbane.
 
Finally we hear number 99 from a pair of concerts, one of which was reviewed for Seen and Heard by Gavin Dixon. This symphony has the most extended introduction of all the works in this set and Davis’s treatment is properly spacious. Thereafter the Vivace assai bowls along with great momentum, yet even at this pace elegance is not sacrificed. Davis gives the music of the Adagio the correct amount of space and the LSO woodwinds are on top form. As Lindsay Kemp points out the Menuetto contains some anticipations of the Beethovenian scherzo – though the music is still very recognisably by Haydn; the elegant trio could only be by Haydn. The concise and extrovert finale fairly teems with life in this performance.
 
I’m intrigued to note that all the concerts which were reviewed by Seen and Heard colleagues included one of the Nielsen symphonies. I think it’s probably a fair bet, then, that the other concerts were also part of Sir Coin’s Nielsen series in which case these discs nicely complement his Nielsen cycle on LSO Live.
 
This is a richly rewarding and highly enjoyable set. The playing of the LSO is consistently excellent and one gets the distinct impression that the players were enjoying themselves – as well they might. Sir Colin’s way with Haydn is cultivated and invariably satisfying. Just recently Mark Berry has reviewed a fine Salzburg performance of Die Schöpfung led by another master conductor of Haydn and much else, Bernard Haitink. In the course of that review Mark referred to the Haydn performances of Sir Colin, of which he heard many, and referred to ‘Davis’s inimitable way with orchestral Haydn, encompassing not only great musical wisdom but a sense of fun.’ I entirely agree with that judgement to which I’d only add that Davis possessed a seemingly innate elegance and sense of line in music like this. All these qualities are consistently on display here and these splendid performances are self-recommending.
 
The SACD sound is good. Lindsay Kemp’s notes are succinct but useful. There’s a degree of repetition in them which stems, I suspect, from the fact that they were written for the individual concerts at which these performances were given nut that’s of little consequence.
 
These are a fine reminder of the stylish musicality of Sir Coin Davis. Two hours listening to late Haydn symphonies under his perceptive guidance is time very well spent. I hope that LSO Live have more performances ‘in the can’ which they will be able to issue in due course. In particular, I noted that there were some enticing, previously unissued recordings that appeared recently in their 13-disc commemorative issue. These included the Berlioz Te Deum and Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony. Individual releases of those performances would be more than welcome.
 
John Quinn

And a second review ...

No sooner had my review of this set as a 24-bit lossless download from hyperion-records.co.uk appeared in Download News 2014/9 than the SACDs plopped through my letter box. As I noted in DL News, by one of those crazy turns of economics, the SACDs are on sale for much the same price as the download, with at least one dealer currently discounting the price of the SACDs to below £12. In this case I’m assured by Hyperion that they are charging the correct price and if you are happy with mp3 or 16-bit lossless – both if you ask for it – their price of £9.75 is very competitive. That’s not the most flagrant example of crazy pricing – you can’t beat Amazon’s policy whereby they frequently charge less for a CD – usually with the mp3 download free as part of the deal – than they do for just the download. Equally incomprehensibly, emusic.com charge £0.42 per track, however long, so some albums work out at £0.84 or less while others end up costing seven or eight times the price of the CD and ten times more than downloads from other sources.
 
Sir Colin Davis’s earlier recordings of all twelve London Symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, on two budget-price twofers, is one of the great bargains of the catalogue (Decca Duo: Nos. 93, 94, 97, 99-101 on 4426112 and 95, 96, 98, 102-4 on 4426142). His interpretations may have mellowed and some of his tempi slowed in the interim, but these live recordings complement that earlier set very effectively. Despite severe over-crowding in my CD collection, all three Davis sets will be staying, as will the CD of Beecham’s performance of Nos. 101 and 103 (Classics for Pleasure – no longer available), with the rest of Beecham’s two 2-CD sets secure on my hard drive (again no longer available separately: now with The Seasons on Warner 9846032, 6 CDs for around £20 – review). If you wish to supplement the new recordings with a single-CD selection from Davis’s Concertgebouw set, there’s an inexpensive Classic FM Full Works album containing Nos. 94, 100 and 104 (4810868), conveniently three symphonies absent from the new set. It’s available for download only, from prestoclassical.co.uk, mp3 or lossless.
 
Writing for the live reviews part of the site, Seen and Heard, Mark Berry defied anyone to hear superior Haydn anywhere than Davis’s performance of No.92 – review – and Colin Clarke enjoyed the performance of No.93 – review – both included on the new discs.
 
No.92 is not one of the two sets of ‘London’ Symphonies but dates from the time between the ‘Paris’ Symphonies and them; it was performed in the Sheldonian Theatre at the degree ceremony during which Haydn was made an honorary Oxford D Mus. I listened to Thomas Fey’s recording of this symphony with the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra (Hänssler 98.629, with No.90), a recording which I had already downloaded from classicsonline.com for review in a forthcoming edition of my Download News. It’s one of the best efforts in an uneven series which often combines exhilarating tempi with passages of reining-in that would put strain on any team of horses. As usual Fey gives his timpanist plenty to do here and he makes a strong case for faster inner movements than Davis. The greatest discrepancy between Fey and Davis arises in the presto finale, which, as Mark Berry writes, is full of fun from Davis. Fey opens hell-for-leather and gives an exhilarating account of the movement overall, complete with repeats, against which Davis sounds a trifle sedate. Forget the comparison with Fey, however, and Davis’s recording is very enjoyable.
 
Fey seeks to incorporate some of the principles of original-instrument practice into his performances of Nos. 90 and 92 but aficionados of such practice will be well served and at a lower price by the recordings of Nos. 90, 91 and 92 on budget-price Hyperion Helios CDH55125 on which Roy Goodman conducts The Hanover Band – just £4.99 as a download in mp3 and lossless sound, with pdf booklet, or £5.50 on CD, from hyperion-records.co.uk. Tempi are on the fast side throughout but never excessively so. This ambitious series was never completed, but five of the ‘London’ Symphonies, Nos. 93-95 and 101-102, can be found on CDH55126 and 55127 respectively and are well worth considering, especially at the price. Reviews in DL Roundups for January 2011 and November 2011/1.
 
Alternatively, period-performance fans should note that the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and René Jacobs offer fine performances of Nos. 91 and 92, separated by Bernarda Fink singing the Scena di Berenice on Harmonia Mundi HMC901849. Jacobs observes repeats in the outer movements, which many will feel gives a better balance to the music. I’m usually in favour of taking repeats but I’m easy either way in the case of the ‘Oxford’ Symphony.
 
Davis’s tempo for the first movement of No.93 was already one of the broadest on his Concertgebouw recording: on Beecham’s first LP recording (1951, available to download on Naxos Classical Archives) it came in at 6:37, broadened slightly to 7:18 by the time of his remake, whereas Davis took 7:51 with the Concertgebouw, lengthened to 7:59 with the LSO. Heard against Beecham or Jochum (7:16 – see below) he may sound a little sedate – though not dragging – but his view of this movement with both orchestras makes perfect sense taken on its own.
 
His tempo for the slow movement, on the other hand, remains on the fast side: at 4:55 (Concertgebouw) he was perhaps driving a little too fast, but even at 5:34 (LSO) he’s faster than either of the Beecham versions, with Jochum halving the difference between Davis then and now at 5:13.
 
As with Eugen Jochum’s two recordings of Symphony No.98, a harpsichord is on hand to point Haydn’s joke at the end of the finale when the continuo keyboard, which has been anonymous throughout, springs to life for a brief moment in the sun. By omitting the harpsichord, most performances gloss over this typically Haydnesque bit of humour. It’s a surprise and a shame that Beecham, always one for a joke, gave the keyboard part to the solo violin. Perhaps the edition which he used – notoriously he clung to an older version with errors rather than the Robbins Landon scores – was to blame.
 
At 6:41 against Beecham’s 5:59 Davis may look as if he is labouring this movement on the LSO recording but he took even longer with the Concertgebouw (8:03). In the event, both his recordings allowing us to savour the joke – several times we are made to think the movement has ended – and Jochum also spins the movement out (8:01 with the Berlin Phil, 7:41 with the LPO). Thomas Fey with the Heidelberg Orchestra starts this movement at a cracking pace, then indulges in some massive examples of rallentando of the kind which spoils his Haydn for many music lovers who nevertheless enjoy the energy that he projects, taking 7:53 overall. He does include the harpsichord, but either he or the engineers make it sound a bit too inconsequential: Hänssler 98.031, with Symphony No.103. We seem not to have reviewed this one: look out for a forthcoming spot in DL News.
 
Sadly, Jochum’s CD set has vanished but it is still available as a download, containing his Berlin Philharmonic versions of No.88 and 98 and his later LPO recordings of Nos. 93-104 (4743642 – from prestoclassical.co.uk, mp3 and lossless or, slightly less expensively, in mp3 only, from 7digital.com).
 
It’s not just in No.98 that the new set rivals Jochum and Davis’s own earlier recordings – my only regret is that he didn’t live to complete a new series of recordings of all the ‘London’ symphonies, but there’s a bonus in the form of the ‘Oxford’ symphony. All in all, this is as good as it gets from modern instrument performers. Though Davis refused to have much truck with period theory, even authenticists will have little to disapprove of. Those who dislike applause – fully deserved as it was – will be happy that it’s been removed.
 
Occasionally I get the opportunity to do a direct comparison between the stereo SACD layer of a disc and the equivalent 24-bit download. In theory both are equal, subject to discrepancies between the disc player – in this case a Cambridge Audio 650BD blu-ray/SACD deck – and the computer’s player – Winamp 6.66. I compared the BIS recording of Respighi’s Brazilian music in that way recently and could hardly tell the difference. Given that I had to turn up the amplifier a little higher for the Haydn SACDs than for Winamp, the result was equally pleasing in both formats – clear and analytical without sounding too close and generally free from trouble from the Barbican acoustic. The result is pleasingly small-scale so that the overall effect is not greatly different from what a period ensemble produces for Goodman or Jacobs. If you are happy with ‘ordinary’ 16-bit CD quality – the difference between that and 24-bit or SACD is significant but not massive – the Hyperion download offers very good value.
 
In listening to several versions of these symphonies I’ve heard a great deal of Haydn over a period of two days without any sense of aural fatigue. I’m not sure that even Mozart would bear such repeated hearing – an additional incentive to buy at least one of the recordings that I’ve mentioned.
 
If you don’t yet have a set of Haydn’s final symphonic masterpieces – which is not to imply that his earlier works are of inferior quality, at least from No.6 onwards – you should be well served by this new 2-SACD set, especially if you have an SACD player. Even heard via the CD layer or as a 16-bit download, it’s a very satisfying set in terms of performance and recording. I’d recommend, however, supplementing it with Davis’s earlier 2x2-CD sets of the whole series of ‘London’ Symphonies and with Beecham’s recordings, also available inexpensively.
 
Brian Wilson

Masterwork Index: Symphony 92 ~~ London symphonies