Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Vienna Chamber Orchestra/Ernst Märzendorfer
rec. 1967-1971, Vienna
SCRIBENDUM SC818 [33 CDs]
It was the American conductor Max Goberman (1911-1962) who embarked on the first Haydn symphony cycle, but the project remained unfulfilled due to his early death. Only 45 symphonies were realised, and they appeared on CD in 2015 in a box set issued by Sony. The distinction of a first completed cycle went to the Austrian conductor Ernst Märzendorfer, at the helm of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, an august body of players drawn from the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Märzendorfer isn't that well known today. He was born in Oberndorf bei Salzburg in 1921 and studied with Clemens Krauss. Throughout his career he held several conducting posts, one of which was the Vienna State Opera, taken up in 1961. He died in 2009 aged 88.
According to Anthony Hodgson, who contributed a two-part article in Classical Recordings Quarterly (Winter 2013, No. 75 and Spring 2014, No. 76), the Haydn project occupied Märzendorfer for four years between 1967-1971. It was released, without much fuss, a year later on 49 LPs by the Musical Heritage Society. Sadly, it was the victim of limited distribution and thus remained under the radar for many years. In the digital era it became available in the form of downloads from Haydn House.com. Devotees of the composer will rejoice in the fact that it has just been released in a 33 CD set by the enterprising label Scribendum. The accompanying information states that the recordings have been digitally remastered from vinyl, as the original tapes are missing, and attempts to locate them have proved unsuccessful.
I happen to be a great fan of Haydn, especially of his symphonies, string quartets and piano sonatas. For some time, Haydn's music has become an integral part of the start of my day. In fact, I can't think of a better way to launch it. With regard to the symphonies, I've acquired several cycles over the years, including the Dorati (Decca), Adam Fischer (Brilliant Classics), the combined Hogwood/Brüggen/Dantone (Decca) - billed as 'the first complete cycle on period instruments' and the incomplete Goberman set (Sony). So, it's interesting to do some comparisons with this newcomer along the way.
I thought I'd sample a few of my favorite symphonies, comparing the various versions I have. I've always cherished a soft spot for Hermann Scherchen's recording of the Symphony No. 48 'Maria Theresia' which he recorded for Supraphon in 1950 (Tahra TAH 283/286). The opener is taken at a fair lick, but it works well, conveying ebullience and exhilaration. Though Märzendorfer doesn't quite match Scherchen’s tempo, his performance has an infectious sparkle. Goberman has a similar approach, though the articulation isn't as crisp as Märzendorfer's. Dorati disappoints, with a reading that's unsmiling and fails to catch fire. The same can be said for the first movement of No. 86. After the opening Adagio, Märzendorfer's is a true Allegro spiritoso, though I marginally prefer Marriner with the ASMF, they've never been matched in my view. Ansermet's Allegro is lethargic and dull. The opening Presto of No. 67 in Märzendorfer's hands has a foot-tapping buoyancy. Hogwood is also successful here.
There are some beautifully realized slow movements in the set, which cover a wide emotional range. The Andante Siciliano of No. 27 has an innocent simplicity and No. 39's struts confidently with a carefully pointed bass. By contrast, the Adagio of No. 49 is weighed down by tears. No. 92's is tender and radiant, whilst No. 98's is both noble and sincere.
Vienna remained central to Märzendorfer's career. His tenure with the city's State opera Orchestra and his tutelage under Clemen's Kraus helped shape his interpretations, especially in his approach to rhythm. There's a real Viennese rhythmic lilt to many of the minuetto movements. That of Symphony No. 57 is a prime example, where the slight anticipation on the second beat brings to mind a Johann Strauss Waltz. It’s more exaggerated in this particular symphony though. The Minuettos of Nos. 41 and 94 have a similar decorous lilt. Goberman, again working with Viennese forces, achieves something similar, though to a lesser degree. Hogwood and Dorati sound flavourless by comparison.
Haydn penned some scintillating finales, most lifting the spirits or raising a smile. Märzendorfer keeps rhythms tight and emphasises the wit and humour of No. 102. As fine as Hogwood is in the finale of No. 73, Märzendorfer outbids him in evoking the spirit of the hunt. I'm totally won over by the light, airy articulation that begins the last movement of No. 99. One disappointment is the finale of No. 94 which sounds stodgy and heavy-footed, certainly when played next to Brüggen's lithe and quicksilver account. Märzendorfer makes up for it, however, in the verve and vigour of No. 82.
One of the highlights of the set is CD 2 containing Symphony no.6 'le Matin', Symphony no.7 'le Midi' and Symphony no.8 'le Soir'. Each demands virtuosic playing, and the solo instruments are well to the fore in the mix. This is one of only three CDs (the others being CD 3 and 29) where the harpsichord makes an appearance. The musicologist and Haydn scholar James Webster holds that the composer didn't intend many of the middle and later symphonies to be performed with harpsichord continuo, but feels that the early symphonies do benefit from a keyboard "to fill out the harmonies". Haydn would often direct from the keyboard. Hilda Langfort does the honours throughout the cycle, but remains discreetly profiled. Most of the time, apart from the slow movement of No. 6, I was hard-pressed to pick her out.
Included in the set are Symphonies ‘A’ and ‘B’, two additions to the usual numbering scheme, and the Sinfonia Concertante in B flat. This delightful work gives the four soloists (violin, cello, oboe and bassoon) a chance for virtuoso display. It's a reading as good as any I've heard, with outer movements that bristle with energy and exuberance.
The recordings have scrubbed up well and sound very fine for their age and provenance. There's a surprising amount of depth and perspective, with a decent amount of air around the musicians.
The 33 CDs come smartly packaged in a sturdy box with each disc in a cardboard slip case, on the back of which are a track list and timings. The symphonies are presented chronologically which I, for one, prefer. Scribendum don't offer any notes, so I can point prospective purchasers in the direction of two superb articles on the MusicWeb International site, which I would highly recommend, by our very own Christopher Howell (Part I ~ Part II). For those with access to CRC back copies, Anthony Hodgson's articles mentioned above are a valuable resource.
1 Symphonies Nos.1-5
2 Symphonies No.6, Le Matin, No.7 Le Midi, No.8 Le Soir
3 Symphonies Nos.9-13
4 Symphonies Nos.14-18
5 Symphonies Nos.19-21 & No.22 Der Philosoph
6 Symphonies Nos.23-25 & No.26 Lamentatione
7 Symphonies Nos.27-29 & No.30 Alleluja
8 Symphonies No.31 Hornsignal, No.32 & No.33
9 Symphonies Nos.34-37
10 Symphonies Nos.38-41
11 Symphonies No.42, No.43 Merkur, No.44 Trauer-Sinfonie
12 Symphonies No.45 Abschied-Sinfonie, No.46 &
No.47 The Palindrome
13 Symphonies No.48 Maria Theresia,
No.49 La Passione & No. 50
14 Symphonies No.51, No.52 & No.53 L'Impériale
15 Symphonies No.54, No.55 Der Schulmeister & No.56
16 Symphonies No.57, No.58 & No.59 Feuer
17 Symphonies No.60 Il Distratto, No.61 & No.62
18 Symphonies No.63 La Roxelane,
No.64 Tempora mutantur & No.65
19 Symphonies Nos.66-68
20 Symphonies No.69 Laudon, No.70 & No.71
21 Symphonies No.72, No.73 La Chasse & No.74
22 Symphonies Nos.75-77
23 Symphonies Nos.78-80
24 Symphonies No.81, No.82 L'Ours & No.83 La Poule
25 Symphonies No.84 In nomine Domini, No.85 La Reine & No.86
26 Symphonies Nos.87-89
27 Symphonies No.90, No.91 & No.92 Oxford
28 Symphonies No.93, No.94 Mit dem Paukenschlag & No.95
29 Symphonies No.96 Le Miracle, No.97 & No.98
30 Symphonies No.99, No.100 Militär & No.101 Die Uhr
31 Symphonies No.102 & No.103 Mit dem Paukenwirbel
32 Symphonies No.104 London & 105 Sinfonia Concertante
33 Symphonies No.107 Sinfonie A & No.108 Sinfonie B