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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809) Symphonies Nos 93-104 'London' (1791/95)
Heidelberger Sinfoniker/Thomas Fey, Benjamin Spillner (101)
rec. 1999-2015 HÄNSSLER CLASSIC HC16001 [4 CDs: 304:02]
I greatly admired Thomas Fey and the Heidelberger Sinfoniker in their set of Mendelssohn’s complete symphonies (review) and was intrigued to know how I would get on with their Haydn recordings. One of the features of the Mendelssohn is a certain feel of daring muscularity that emerges through energetic playing and a sense of rhythmic and dynamic detail that makes the music both lively and exciting, as well as being sensitive to its classical idiom – not pushing too many boundaries or wandering into anything eccentric, but certainly delivering performances that feel as relevant and entertaining as they can possibly be.
First impressions with this set are similar, though again there have been some aspects that take a bit of getting used to. The one thing you notice on CD 1 is that the timpani are high in the recorded mix, which makes for something of a bumpy ride. Strings are mostly vibrato-free, making for a clean but wiry sound. You may prefer a little more warmth, but the crisp sound goes well with Fey’s urgent conducting in the faster movements. Solo strings used for the opening of the Largo cantabile in the Symphony No. 93 introduce some nicely sensitive expression, but my ears are pinned back by those drums each time. The Menuetto is swift and takes no prisoners – no elegant dancing here, but the playing is pretty spectacular. The surprise in the Surprise symphony – that loud chord in the Andante – would have made many 18th century handkerchiefs drop to the floor in a fit of anxious vapours, but the hasty spectacle of the Menuetto takes something away from Haydn’s witty added phrases, and I still feel somewhat beaten up by those timps. Fey has a way of drifting way off tempo in the trio sections of these movements, almost stopping before the reprise of the minuet theme in this case. Some ‘ritenuti’ here and there can add musicality and interest, but my sense here is that things are getting a bit out of hand. The Symphony No. 103 ‘Drum Roll’ is not out of place on this first disc, though the timpani are a little less lively in the mix here. You’ll notice that these symphonies were recorded in a variety of sessions, and the balance shifts subtly throughout the set, though not to a disturbing extent. The tempo is surprisingly measured in the Menuet for this symphony, allowing space for its dramatic harmonic shifts. The Finale is swifter than many but in this case sounds entirely appropriate, whipping up plenty of excitement while exploring Haydn’s inventive orchestration and arresting counterpoint.
The opening to Symphony No. 95 is certainly arresting, reminding us of Thomas Fey’s wide range of dynamics in these recordings. Comparing this to something like Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic set of the London Symphonies on Sony Classical shows where a bigger orchestra doesn’t necessarily have the upper hand when it comes to making big noises. The Heidelberger Sinfoniker is recorded in a much closer perspective, which has its impressive qualities, but can make you feel a bit bruised if listening at a decent volume through headphones.
Bringing Haydn’s ‘London’ symphonies together into a single set has been popular in the past, and there are several examples from which to choose. Full-fat orchestral performances from the 1950s can be found from EMI/Warner Classics with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Thomas Beecham (review). This set still sounds remarkably good and has considerable musicality, though you will have to put up with wobbly vibrato from the winds and a heavier Haydn than you’ll be used to hearing from modern recordings. The Hyperion label has Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Howard Shelley which I don’t know but comes recommended by Tony Haywood (review). Adam Fischer’s recordings as part of the complete Haydn symphonies with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra from Nimbus Records have appeared on Brilliant Classics (review), but I’ve held onto the bargain MP3 edition reviewed back in 2009. This has a softer edge than the Heidelberger Sinfoniker recordings, with a more distant and generalised sound, though the acoustic is of course the Haydnsaal of Esterházy Palace where the maestro himself worked for many years. These are recordings that have less excitement than some, but once you tune into the slightly soggy sound there is much to enjoy, especially if you prefer your timpani to blend more into the orchestral sound. Here they boom around in the background with genial warmth rather than driving rhythmically, but I still have a soft spot for this set. Richard Hickox recorded these symphonies with Collegium Musicum 90 on two volumes for the Chandos Chaconne label (reviews of Vol. 1 and Vol. 2). These are delightful versions in full ‘early-music’ mode, sounding rich and invigorating in a nicely resonant acoustic, with those timpani a good deal lower in the mix than with the Heidelberger Sinfoniker.
Coming back to this particular set I find much to admire, but initially less with which to fall in love – though perhaps there are good reasons for this. We don’t have many reviews of other volumes in Thomas Fey’s complete Haydn symphony cycle on MWI, though Michael Greenhalgh’s review of volume 9 points out qualities which I find in common with this London set. “Fey takes risks, provides variety and an element of showmanship, but all intelligently applied”, agreed, but this also means you have to be in the mood for the ‘brash’, and phrases such as ‘uninhibited romp’ and ‘exhilaratingly helter-skelter’ can cut two ways. No. 94 and No. 104 were part of the very first volume of Fey’s complete Haydn symphonic edition, and for these you can read Michael Cookson’s review from way back in 2003.
As with the Mendelssohn set, it might take you a while to tune in to Thomas Fey’s angle of approach with these symphonies, but if you can crack the nut then the goodness within should emerge. My idea is that Fey is making Haydn into more of a revolutionary composer than we’ve been used to, pushing him more towards Beethoven than interpreters who see him as rather an isolated figure, cosily employed with the Esterházy family – or who connect him more with Johann Stamitz and the relatively safe strictures of Classical style and form – limitations dictated by the sensibilities of a public supposedly averse to too much novelty. Have a listen to this recording of the Symphony No. 98, in particular the outer movements, and imagine if someone told you it was a lost early work by Beethoven. You probably wouldn’t find it hard to believe this with all of the tumult and quirky surprises that Haydn comes up with, and that are clearly relished by Fey and his players.
Does this work? Yes indeed. If you are prepared to accept this high-impact view of Haydn’s scores then you can get stuck into plenty of discovery, renewing your acquaintance with some old favourites but in the new light of a composer who took C.P.E. Bach’s baton of rhetorical boundary-testing and was already forging a path that required someone of the stature of Beethoven to move it yet further. Listen closely to the motivic development of Symphony No. 99, and in particular the Adagio second movement, where there are plenty of Beethovenian pre-echoes. I’m sure this point will have been made elsewhere, but I’m hearing them far more here than I can remember recognising before.
Thomas Fey is out to convince us that these works are truly great masterpieces, and it will be up to you to decide if he is trying too hard. I think this is the case in places, but am glad to have had my ears opened, particularly in the symphonies that precede the final four. These have arguably less to prove than the others, but Fey by no means lets up, hitting us with musical broadsides and moments of grace and sensitivity in the first movement of Symphony No. 101. The ‘clock’ of the Andante has clearly just been wound-up and is dynamic and brisk in tempo, the development taking us into some remarkably dense and intense musical regions. Not to skimp, but both symphonies 102 and 104 are rich in comparable moments. I’ve had Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra recordings of these symphonies on Teldec for many years (review), and bringing them out for comparison gives the feeling of something rather plush and civilised – excellent in their own way, but coming nowhere near to the physical impact of Thomas Fey’s performances. Fey goes back into his extreme tempo variation manner in the Menuet of Symphony No. 102, even adding some extra elaborations, so there are still hurdles to leap if you’re to be 100% convinced of these interpretations. The dramatic opening to Symphony No. 104 is remarkably intense here, with those weighty fanfares and genuinely sobbing strings creating something truly operatic. This sets us up for a musical journey that crowns this set with something suitably jewel-studded, with moments of almost Brucknerian broadening out in the Andante second movement. All of those rhythmic quirks in the Menuet kick out splendidly, and by now we’re all getting used to some stretching of the tempo in the trio section. A bit more forward momentum and a little less messing around would suit me better. The Finale can compete with symphonic Beethoven at just about any level, the folk-origins claimed as its origin left behind in a sparkling show of inventive genius.
Presentation for this set is decent enough, with booklet notes by Jens Markowsky putting these works in context while not going into a huge amount of detail. I’m not so keen on the cover photo but it’s certainly as colourful and vibrant as the performances within. Close and focussed listening is the bottom line for proper appreciation of any good performance and recording, but these recordings really do demand your whole attention. They offer a rougher ride than most other versions, but once you’ve zoned in and accepted that Thomas Fey is determined to lift Haydn into the realms of what we would expect from strong performances of Beethoven’s symphonies, then you can address your own possible preconceptions and see how far you can go along with this idea. I found myself agreeing more than I expected and will no doubt continue to find new things on repeated hearings. This is after all part of what we’re looking for in new recordings, isn’t it? New things? Haydn has rarely sounded so new and fresh as in these excellent recordings, and I urge you to give them a try.