MUSIC: Symphonic Smorgasbord

Last year’s Haydn centenary, which I wrote about at the time, produced the inevitable round of concerts devoted to the music of my favourite instrumental composer, and some of those concerts are turning up on record this year. Recently I got to listen to two newish recordings of Haydn’s last 12 symphonies, the “London” set (because they were all written for concerts in that city), one by Marc Minkowski and the Musiciens du Louvre on the French label Naive, the other by Roger Norrington and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, on the German label Hanssler. The links there are to the digital versions, but they’re also available on CD; the Minkowski hasn’t been released on CD in Canada yet, but I got my copy from Amazon.fr. (Yes, I like owning stuff in physical formats. No, I don’t know why.) Both sets were recorded in live concerts last year, though the Norrington set includes applause at the end and the Minkowski does not. Both are in “HIP,” Historically Informed Performance, style, but Minkowski uses actual period instruments, while Norrington has a modern orchestra playing in period style (the strings use no vibrato whatsoever most of the time).

Long story short, both of these sets are good and I’m glad to have them both, particularly since Haydn’s late symphonies haven’t been all that lucky on record. This is because six of the twelve symphonies were given nicknames after Haydn’s death, but six others were not; the six un-named symphonies aren’t performed or recorded all that often, even though they’re just as good as the other six. (In particular, 98 and 102 may be the two best symphonies in the cycle, and neither one has been recorded nearly enough.) Long story even shorter, Minkowski’s set is the more recommendable one — more consistent performances, and cheaper — but Norrington’s has some interesting things to say, and may have more appropriate sound quality.

No set of 12 symphonies is going to hit the bulls-eye with every one, and some performances are better than others in each of these sets. Minkowski is very extroverted and energetic, which works best in movements that are fast and wild (first and last movements) or movements with violent contrasts (Haydn liked to spring sudden surprises on his audience, suddenly going dark in the middle of lighthearted movements, or vice-versa). Sometimes his fleet and fast approach makes the music a little too light, especially in the only minor-key symphony, # 95. And the live sound is sometimes a little distant, blunting the impact of the brass and drums. (Which is still better than conductors who just try to pretend that the brass and drums aren’t there.) But the playing of the orchestra is outstanding, and the performances get better and better as the set goes along; by the time he gets to my favourite of the cycle, 102, he turns in one of my favourite performances since Otto Klemperer’s classic ’60s version, with the beauty of the slow movement and the wild, weird, gruff humour of the other three movements perfectly conveyed. And unlike an older generation of period-instrument conductors, Minkowski has enough flexibility in phrasing and tempo that you don’t feel the conductor has set one fast speed and is sticking to it metronomically; that’s especially important in Haydn, who depends on surprising phrasing and sudden pauses for a lot of his effects. One unusual choice Minkowski makes is to change the score a bit in the famous “Surprise” symphony, inserting an unmarked repeat and an extra “surprise” that… well, let’s just say you shouldn’t have the volume turned up too high at that point. It certainly is surprising, that’s for sure.

Two video performances have been uploaded to YouTube (different performances from the ones on the discs, but from the same tour). Here’s the start of symphony # 103, the “drum roll” symphony. The opening drum roll (which, in a surprise, Haydn repeats just before the ending) isn’t strictly notated, which allows the drummer to do what he wants; here he improvises a whole flourish of his own. And by “improvise” I mean “read off a score that he prepared.” They aren’t jazz musicians, you know.


Norrington’s version is more a supplementary version. He takes a lot of movements slower or faster than we’re used to: the first movements can be slowish, the dance movements kind of clunky (which you wouldn’t expect from an “authentic” type, since Haydn actually didn’t intend these dances to be taken slowly), but the “slow” movements are faster than I’ve ever heard them. Sometimes this doesn’t work; some of the allegros leave me wishing they’d hurry up and end. Other times, it works great: the not-slow slow movements, taken this way, sound like Beethoven’s later experiments with nervous, fidgety, disturbing not-slow movments (like in the seventh symphony). The march from the “Military” symphony, where a cute-sounding military theme turns into scary battle music, is very effective this way, more so than Minkowski’s slower version. And here’s Norrington’s take on the famous movement from the so-called “Clock” symphony, which is taken extremely fast but, dang it, gets that tick-tock effect very well and also brings out Haydn’s stranger moments, like the raucous fanfares that ring out and then subside as the “clock” theme comes back.


So, in sum: these 12 Haydn symphonies are for my money as important a part of a musical collection as Beethoven’s nine. Actually, almost all 104 of Haydn’s symphonies are wonderful in their own way, but this cycle was the culmination of his life’s work. The Minkowski is an excellent way to get to know them, and the Norrington is a good supplement to any “basic” version.

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