Haydn: The London Symphonies Vol. 1 No. 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99

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WORKS: The London Symphonies Vol. 1 No. 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99
PERFORMER: New York PO/Leonard Bernstein
At least one of these performances (No. 104) goes back to the Fifties, and the Paris Symphonies came out about a quarter-of-a-century ago. For some reason they caused a tremendous row in the New York press when they were issued. Part of it was my defending the performances (in a magazine called High Fidelity), saying among other things that Bernstein had gone to great pains to get his trills right, ie in strict tempo and starting on the upper note. In those days, a lot of snobs did not take Bernstein seriously – how wrong they were.

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Bernstein has a natural affinity for Haydn, though some of his tempi will be judged too slow: first movements of Nos. 82, 93 and 98 (an old legacy from Sir Thomas Beecham, especially in the case of No. 82), the intolerably slow minuets of some works (eg Nos. 93 and 101, also a Beecham legacy but not much better in the Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic recordings), and the slow movement of The Clock (No. 101). But when Bernstein gets it right, it is glorious. The slow movement of the Surprise (No. 94) is nowadays taken far too quickly: it is only andante, not allegretto, and Bernstein’s reading is poetic and masculine, by turns. The first movement of the great C minor Symphony No. 95 is the best reading of it that I know – listen to that hair-raising timpani part at the end: it is extraordinary, as is the ferociously slow Minuet in the same work. And while on the subject of timpani, there are splendid timpani solos in the Minuet of No. 97, the slow movement of which is also a revelation – note the careful adherence to Haydn’s markings of ‘ponticello’, on the bridge of the violins, a nasty, spiky sound which must have stunned London in 1792.

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If you want one perfect Haydn/Bernstein sampler, try the finale of No. 99 in E flat, the first time Haydn ever used clarinets in a symphony. The tempo and the pace are perfect. And what civilised works these are: witty, profound, dramatic, touching – there is something for everybody in them. HCRobbins Landon