Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 93 – 104

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: NAIVE
WORKS: Symphonies Nos. 93 – 104 (London)
PERFORMER: Les Musicians du Louvre-Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
CATALOGUE NO: V 5176

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It would take readings of an ultimate dullness to snuff out the variety, inventiveness, colour, urbanity and sheer joie de vivre of the 12 wonderful symphonies that Joseph Haydn composed for his two triumphant 18-month London visits in the early 1790s. And these latest recordings are never dull.

Marc Minkowski and his period-instrument band may be thought of as early music specialists, yet their approach is the reverse of doctrinaire. His tempos are generally brisk, but Minkowski is also capable of turning in a reading of Symphony No. 99 in E flat – surely one of the two or three greatest of the entire 12 – with the unhurried glow of a latter-day Furtwängler.

Part of the unpredictability doubtless reflects the fact that these are live recordings; and while the audience is admirably silent, there are a fair number of stampings and sharp intakes of breath from the conductor himself, which may irritate or add to the sense of immediacy, according to taste.

The venue was the Wiener Konzerthaus, a warm, spacious acoustic comparable to the Haydnsaal at Eisenstadt in which Adám Fischer recorded his Haydn cycle for the Nimbus label. This enhances the bloom of the period winds but also tends to boost brass and drums so that wind and string details in tuttis are sometimes overwhelmed.

There are also a few oddities. Whether or not Minkowski has scholarly authority – the notes do not say – for reducing much of the string writing in the eventful second movement of Symphony No. 96 to string quartet, this rather pre-empts the emergence of violin solos near its end. And his attempt to recreate the original shock of the Surprise Symphony with a couple of extra shocks of his own is not so hot.

As for his emulation of Harnoncourt in prefacing the Drum Roll Symphony with a timpani cadenza: this surely cannot be what Haydn initially intended, or the work would have been nicknamed ‘Drum Tattoo’.

Yet at best – in the crisp and sweeping account of the Clock Symphony, for instance – these accounts seem to combine something of the virtues modern instrument recordings, as exemplified by Colin Davis’s evergreen Concertgebouw cycle, with the enhanced precision and pungency of period performance.

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Those who feel they have heard some of these works rather too often will have their affection renewed by this lively set. Bayan Northcott