Having been elated by Sir Simon Rattle's performance of Mozart's early G minor symphony at the Proms last year with the Berlin Philharmonic, I was expecting great things of his new double-CD set of Haydn symphonies with the same orchestra.
But in spite of some excellent playing and an undoubtedly caring approach, my overall reaction to the recording is one of slight disappointment.
In short, many of the performances are so precious, the scores so carefully picked over, that there's little of the joy and humour which Rattle mentions in his brief note in the CD booklet. The wonderful Symphony No. 89 in F major, for instance, is beautifully played but incredibly dull in places. Ironically, Rattle is so keen to bring out the structural silences and pauses that he loses their dramatic potential. The opening Vivace shows the conductor at his best in terms of painting a wide range of dynamics and allowing different sections of the orchestra to shine - the flute is especially prominent - but the performance just lacks the liveliness which the performance direction demands. For me, Rattle takes too many liberties with the tempo in the Andante, losing a sense of the beat, and although there's not enough life in the Minuet and Trio (which gets progressively slower in the middle), a number of the accents seem too harsh. The Finale starts off with more energy, and both the deliberately vulgar portamenti for the returns of the main theme in the rondo structure and the Hungarian episode in F minor are highly effective. If only this balance between satisfying the directions in the score and enacting its spirit were managed elsewhere.
Again, I don't feel that the performance of the opening movement of Symphony No. 90 is entirely convincing. Here Rattle does seem to inspire fieriness in the louder sections, but the contrasting quieter parts - the comic elements - are so understated as to barely register. Similarly, little is made of the slow movement, which is described as 'not-so-slow' in the booklet essay but scarcely moves at times in this performance, despite a notable cello solo; the Minuet finally shows us that the performers are capable of the joie de vivre which Rattle seems to be aiming at, though again the speed is jeopardised excessively when the dynamic dips. Two versions of the comical 'false finale' (where the music appears to come to an end, inducing applause, but doesn't - and the joke is heard twice because of the repeat) are included, one 'live' with the audience reaction, the other in the studio. Frankly, there's little to choose between them - both are vigorous and animated - but I agree with Rattle that the audience reactions are almost written into the silences in the score, so that's the version to listen to the most. This is the conductor at his best, bringing out high quality playing without too many interpretative quirks.
The heavy-handedness of the opening chords of Symphony No. 91 in E flat once more seems to go against the grain of Haydn's musical character, and though the broader sections of the Allegro are exciting, there's a ponderousness in this performance (as opposed to warmth). The precision of the articulation in the Andante is not to be taken for granted, but I still long for more vigour. It comes in the opening of the Minuet, which seems unconventionally fast, if anything (perhaps in reaction to the slightly slow rendition of the Andante); the horn playing is exceptional both here and in the Finale, which is energetic.
The start of the 'Oxford' Symphony (No. 92 in G) finds Rattle bringing out some sublime colours and both this and the much earlier Symphony No. 88 (in the same key) bristle along efficiently enough, though there are still some moments where a simpler approach might serve the composition more effectively. Yet the performance of the Sinfonia concertante in B flat for violin (Toru Yasunaga), cello (Georg Faust), oboe (Jonathan Kelly) and bassoon (Stefan Schweigert) is so exemplary - perhaps because the soloists are in control of certain stretches of the music - that it marks out the other performances as rather ordinary. Others may enjoy the way Rattle dissects these scores, but for once I'm afraid he's left me rather cold.