Three Haydn releases from three very different sources on Sony Classical show how valid different approaches to the symphonies can be, whilst remaining equally enjoyable and, in the best Haydnesque manner, life-affirming.
First is a brand new disc of two 'London' symphonies from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under their chief conductor, Mariss Jansons. Sandwiched between symphonies Nos. 104 and 100 is the Sinfonia Concertante in B, featuring excellent soloists from the orchestra itself. Obviously, in contrast to the Tafelmusik set, the BRSO do not use period instruments nor, for that matter, does Jansons feel much need to reflect period instrument practice in his readings. We have, instead, unapologetic big-band Haydn – not unsuitable for the unprecendented scale of the 'London' Symphonies, one might well say – which is distinguished by wonderfully buoyant and musical playing. Neither Jansons nor his orchestra is setting out with anything to prove, other than how direct, beautifully paced and performed accounts of these works serve the composer.
Period instrument enthusiasts will miss that edge in the sound but I, for one, was persuaded by the strength and robustness Jansons and the Bavarians bring to the resolute minor key episodes in No.104's Andante, or the joie de vivre that makes the finale positively bristle with energy, greatly helped by exciting and assertive work from the timpanist. The 'Military' Symphony is no less fine, with perhaps even more characterful work from the woodwind – listen to the energy the oboist gives to his occasional little ornamental figures in the first movement – and a real sense of power in the development section, with the strings springy and marvellously together, all the more impressive given that these are live recordings. The Allegretto second movement contrasts extremely well the urbane civilisation of the early sections with the rude military interruptions. The finale once again is athletic and light on its feet, full of energy and a bracing listen. Having soloists from the orchestra in the Sinfonia Concertante only emphasises what a wonderful orchestra this is. All four play with virtuosity and grace and are backed to the hilt by their colleagues. The concertante work and the earlier symphony were both recorded nearly six years ago, while No.104 was set down a couple of years ago, in different venues. Nevertheless, the recorded sound is excellent and consistent between the sessions. A great disc.
Inevitably George Szell's recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra of the first six London Symphonies, recorded in the late 60s, gives a fair amount away in terms of sonic refinement to Jansons' new disc. The recording's not ideally clear or detailed, but still sounds remarkably fresh and there's no denying the lively sophistication the veteran conductor brings to the performances, with some characterful and high class playing from the Cleveland at their prime. There's the occasional moment when the tempo has a tendency to sag a little and the violin sound is unashamedly full. However, Szell manages to get a lilting elegance from his players that is irresistible and the playing of the woodwind is again full of life and character. Movements such as the famous Andante of the 'Surprise' are beautifully realised, while there's nothing apologetic about the less famous bassoon 'raspberry' that rudely interrupts the slow movement of No.93. In short then, this is a reminder if anyone needed it that 'old-fashioned' Haydn can still pack a punch. It's a shame that we've only got half the 'London' Symphonies, that might make this release a bit less attractive for completists, but at low bargain price this duo is well worth seeking out.
Having extolled the values of the symphony orchestra approach taken by Jansons and Szell, we get on to a real bargain on period instruments. Again, Bruno Weil's set with Tafelmusik, originally released throughout the 90s on Sony's Vivarte label, is not great for completists. We have all the 'Paris' Symphonies and a selection of other symphonies, a good selection from the 'Sturm und Drang' works (Nos. 41-47), as well as Nos. 50- 52, 64, 65 and 88-90. It's a rather inconvenient mixture, then, resulting from the fact that, as with so many ambitious recording projects of this ilk, only a small fraction of what was planned ever made it into the studio.
The seven-CD box retails at less than £20 and, despite its rather hotchpotch character and the lack of any notes in the booklet – in this case a loss, since the original releases were blessed with essays by H.C. Robbins Landon, still credited as the 'Musicological and artistic consultant' – it's still well worth snapping up. The simple reason for this is that Weil's Haydn is still some of the best around, whether on period instruments or not. He decides against continuo and doesn't observe all the repeats but achieves results that are consistently invigorating and, above all, extremely enjoyable. This is Haydn performance that revels in the composer's innovations, his ability to ratchet up the tension – particularly in the 'Sturm und Drang' works, of course – and subsequently release it through the most unexpected and, often, sublime means. Tafelmusik, too, is a wonderful band with virtuosic strings and pleasingly vivid woodwind. As a reissue, then, this is a pretty perfunctory and half-hearted effort on Sony's part, but the recordings themselves are a joy.
By Hugo Shirley