Haydn: Symphony No. 82; Symphony No. 83; Symphony No. 84; Symphony No. 85; Symphony No. 86; Symphony No. 87

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Haydn
WORKS: Symphony No. 82; Symphony No. 83; Symphony No. 84; Symphony No. 85; Symphony No. 86; Symphony No. 87
PERFORMER: Concentus Musicus Wien; Nikolaus Harnoncourt
CATALOGUE NO: 82876 60602
Harnoncourt characteristically plays up the rhetorical boldness and vivid contrasts in these colourful, worldly symphonies. The boldest movement of all, the opening Vivace assai of L’Ours, No. 82, has a swagger and brazen splendour unmatched in any rival recording: Harnoncourt generates a terrific tension in Haydn’s powerful sequences, timpani explode like canon-fire, and high horns glow white-hot through the texture. The other symphony with trumpets and drums, No. 86, is just as imposing and viscerally exciting, Harnoncourt delighting in the finale’s subversive comic brio. And if you thought the outer movements of No. 87 were cheerfully lightweight, the drama and (in the first-movement development) ferocious intensity of Harnoncourt’s performance will make you think again.

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That the agent provocateur is also a closet Romantic is apparent in his tender, espressivo phrasing of the slow movements and in his habit, unfashionable today, of easing the tempo (sometimes drastically) for Haydn’s ‘second subjects’. Even more controversial is the way he elongates or contracts rests (listen to the furious opening of La Poule), and either slows down or speeds up for the trios of minuets. After the courtly minuet of No. 84, for instance, the Trio darts off like a miniature Beethoven scherzo, complete with whiplash accents.

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For those who find Harnoncourt’s forcefulness and wilful tempo manipulations hard to stomach (the crazy play with No. 82’s final chords is another extreme case in point), I’d suggest the more poised readings from Kuijken (Virgin) and Brüggen (Philips). Others, though, might agree that Harnoncourt’s provocative performances characterise these symphonies with a unique zest and flamboyance. Richard Wigmore