Haydn: London Symphonies

LABELS: Philips
WORKS: London Symphonies
PERFORMER: Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Bruggen
CATALOGUE NO: 442 788-2 ODD (1986-93)
In the space of just a quarter of a century – from Mozart’s final trilogy to Beethoven’s Eighth – the modern symphonic repertoire was born, and the glories of Haydn’s London cycle, written between 1791 and 1795, resplendently crown the classical ideal of the form.


Frans Bruggen, a musician of temperament and rhythmic panache, knows and loves his Haydn, responding to the music with an urgent sense of colour, drama and wit. His concern for articulation, dynamics, textural interplay and tutti balance is impeccable. He invests the (hard-sticked) kettledrums with an importance that stresses their innovatory presence. He enjoys his leader’s solo moments and gives his deep-throated basses powerful gravity. He points the Austrian/ Balkan sources of Haydn’s melodies with unforgettable charm. His phrasing is rounded, his cadential punctuation elegant, his rubato almost always convincing. His tempos are brisk but rarely breathless: slow movements have plenty of easy momentum and most of the minuets dance splendidly. His ornamentation is liberal, even unexpected (bar 330 of the finale of No. 98; the Allegretto of the Military). He has the Orchestra of the 18th Century, on period instruments, divided with first violins on left and seconds on right. And, falling somewhere between the size of Johann Salomon’s original London band (1791-94), Viotti’s Opera Concerts (1795) and Robbins Landon’s recommendation (1957), he favours an average string force of 18 violins (equally split), six violas, five cellos and three basses. Apart from Haydn’s own cembalo solo in the finale of No. 98 (here played on a fortepiano), he dispenses with keyboard continuo.

The electricity of the edited ‘live’ performances is tangible, the highlights many. True, not everything quite comes off— in particular the curious slow-fast tempo fluctuations in the coda of the finale to No. 98 (an uncomfortable marriage between Dorati – still the most charismatic realisation of this paragraph – and Beecham) are difficult to reconcile with Haydn’s overall piu moderate marking. And the tuning discrepancy between the opening drumroll of No. 103 and the succeeding bassoon/ cello/bass entry is unfortunate. Not all the edits convince either, especially the change in ambience, imaging and dynamic level at the start of the finale development in No. 98.


But these are minor blemishes on an otherwise historic achievement. Bruggen brings out the greatness in Haydn with a freshness and sincerity that is uplifting. His players are magnificent. And the spacious yet keenly focused sound field is admirably realistic. Ates Orga