Joseph Haydn: Top 20 Recordings

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Twenty outstanding Haydn recordings, featuring René Jacobs, Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Alison Balsom, Alfred Brendel and many more

Joseph Haydn's works have inspired some of the greatest performances – and recordings – we've ever heard. In compiling a list of just 20 recordings we've inevitably had to exclude some wonderful albums, but nonetheless we've tried to include most of Haydn's major works as well as a range of recording approaches. Each of the recordings below should be seen as a leaping-off point for fresh discoveries and many of them were Editor's Choice recordings and recipients of Gramophone Awards – we are sure that they will give you many hours of listening pleasure.

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Symphony No 48

Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Fey (Hänssler Classic)

‘Fey is his own man at every turn, eschewing pointless, didactic guesswork about erstwhile performance practices and instead realistically analysing current options. He illuminates the symphony through his own sensibilities and revitalises it for our time. That’s authenticity.’ (Nalen Anthoni, Gramophone Collection, July 2016)

Symphony No 92, ‘Oxford’

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra / René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi)

‘It may contain one or two of Jacobs’s trademark idiosyncrasies but this is a sensational, exuberant performance. chuckle along with the cheeky fortepiano and marvel at a truly presto finale.’ (David Threasher, Gramophone Collection, September 2012)

Symphony No 103, ‘Drumroll’

Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Claudio Abbado (DG)

Hearing the COE’s playing of phenomenal colour and invention, it’s hard to believe that only with The Creation did Haydn feel he had learnt to orchestrate, with winds in particular. Here is the palette that would serve Weber for Der Freischütz.’ (Peter Quantrill, Gramophone Collection, June 2015)

Haydn 2032, Vol 4 - Il Distratto

Symphony No 12; No 60 'Il Distratto'; No 70

Il Giardino Armonico / Giovanni Antonini (Alpha)

Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico once again come up trumps in their seemingly haphazard selection of symphonies from during and after Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period... As in the previous volumes, the orchestral performance is breathtaking in its accuracy – the sort of Haydn-playing you dream of.(David Threasher, May 2017)

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‘Paris’ Symphonies

Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt (DHM)

‘For the pre-Revolution Parisians these were grand works of powerful and unrelenting invention, and Harnoncourt’s achievement is to remind us of the fact, revealing in these underrated masterpieces a brilliance and muscle that can almost make us forget 200 years of symphonic history.’ (Lindsay Kemp, August 2005)

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Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross

Ensemble Resonanz / Riccardo Minasi (Harmonia Mundi)

‘Recorded in an ideal acoustic, Riccardo Minasi balances penitential awe with the dramatic urgency of Haydn’s sonata style. From No 2’s muted solo cello to the ebbing lute and horn in the Final Word, Minasi is acutely responsive to the expressive import of orchestral colour.’ (Richard Wigmore, Gramophone Collection, April 2021)

Keyboard Concertos Nos 3, 4 & 11

Norwegian Chamber Orchestra / Leif Ove Andsnes pf (Warner Classics)

Andsnes's playing of the Largo cantabile of the F major Concerto – the concerto's centrepiece and raison d'etre – is the very embodiment of sweetness and light. A marvellous disc.’

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Cello Concertos

Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen / Steven Isserlis vc (Hyperion)

‘The main selling point is the two Haydn concertos, and this album is worth acquiring whether you’re yet to own a recording of these masterpieces or your collection is already bulging with them. Isserlis’s 1998 recording remains classy stuff, but this has superbly trumped it.’ (Charlotte Gardner, Awards issue 2017)

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Trumpet Concerto

Alison Balsom tpt Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (Warner Classics)

‘More than any performance I know, Schuster’s included, Alison Balsom brings out the mellow, even veiled, colouring of so much of the writing. Where clarion brilliance is in order she can peal out with the best of them. But what lingers in the memory is the lyrical grace of her phrasing, and her delicacy of shading.’ (Richard Wigmore, Awards issue 2008)

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String Quartets, Op 20

Doric String Quartet (Chandos)

‘Thoughtfulness is uppermost. Allied to precision in articulation is a flexibility in the scansion and shaping of phrases, of notes timed through a remarkable understanding of rubato, of a range of expressive resilience that gives even the smallest of episodes in a long line their own character without distorting structure or disturbing flow.’ (Nalen Anthoni, December 2014)

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String Quartets, Op 33

Quatuor Mosaïques (Auvidis Astree / Naïve)

‘This truthfully recorded disc seems to me every bit as fine as the Mosaiques’ Gramophone Award-winning set of Haydn’s Op. 20 (5/93): playing that marries uncommon style, technical finesse (tuning, blend and balance suffering little by comparison with the finest modern-instrument quartets) and re-creative flair.’ (Richard Wigmore, June 1996)

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Piano Trios (complete)

Beaux Arts Trio (Philips)

‘When the Beaux Arts' cycle of trios was finally completed it received almost universal accolades, including Gramophone's 1979 Record of the Year award. Their playing throughout is indeed distinguished: vital, refined and sharply responsive to the music's teeming richness and variety.’ (Richard Wigmore, July 1992)

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Piano Sonatas, Vol 11

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet pf (Chandos)

‘Having had the pleasure of reviewing three of the series, I can say that my admiration for Bavouzet’s pianism and my love for Haydn’s piano music have grown in parallel. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, this last volume hits new heights. All the buoyancy, charm and wit are there once again, but unless it’s my imagination, there’s a magical and deeply touching, almost nostalgic hue to this one, as if enjoying the company of a beloved old friend before parting.’ (Michelle Assay, September 2022)

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Piano Sonatas, Vol 1

Marc-André Hamelin pf (Hyperion)

‘Hamelin is a prodigious virtuoso. Here, he remains one, in a full if not entirely inclusive sense, often susceptible to Haydn’s wit, to vertiginous music which can veer to the right just when you expect it to turn left, and vice versa.’ (Bryce Morrison, May 2007)

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Piano Sonatas (complete)

Alfred Brendel pf (Philips)

‘Brendel's steady illumination of Haydn is a delight. He is at once a scrupulous and a robust interpreter, setting out from a careful reading of the text to seek the most vivid projection of Haydn's ideas—and I admire especially the way he allows boldness, even daring, to play a part in the search.’ (Stephen Plaistow, March 1987)

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The Seasons

Marlis Petersen sop Werner Güra ten Dietrich Henschel bar RIAS Kammerchor & Freiburger Barockorchester / René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi)

‘It would be hard to imagine a more joyful account of Haydn’s culminating masterpiece. René Jacobs and his outstanding team perfectly capture the exuberance with which the composer seemed to be defying the years.’ (Edward Greenfield, Awards issue 2004)

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The Seasons (in English)

Carolyn Sampson sop Jeremy Ovenden ten Andrew Foster-Williams bass Wrocław Baroque Orchestra, Wrocław Philharmonic Choir, Gabrieli Consort & Players / Paul McCreesh (Signum)

‘While the best German-language versions (with Jacobs my own favourite) are not displaced, McCreesh and his massed Anglo-Polish forces have given us a Seasons that thrillingly catches both the work’s bucolic exhilaration and its invocations of the sublime. And for sheer sonic splendour it’s in a class of its own.’ (Richard Wigmore, May 2017)

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Die Schöpfung

Sylvia McNair, Donna Brown, Michael Schade, Gerald Finley, Rodney Gilfry; The Monteverdi Choir & The English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv)

‘Against others of comparable kind – Bruggen, Harnoncourt and Hogwood, for instance – Gardiner stands firm as an easy first choice: a re-creator of vision, a great invigorator and life-enhancer.’ (John Steane, April 1997)

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Nelson Mass & Te Deum

Felicity Lott, Carolyn Watkinson, Maldwyn Davies, David Wilson-Johnson; The English Concert & Choir / Trevor Pinnock (DG Archiv)

‘It is, without doubt, the distinctive sonority which sets this performance apart: the trumpets and drums bite into the dissonance of the Kyrie and the Benedictus; there is finely pointed, near vibrato-less string playing, mordant and urgent; there is the heavy groan of the bass strings on the repeated notes of the ''Qui tollis''. But it is also Pinnock's tempos which bring the score into sharp focus.’ (Hilary Finch, February 1988)

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Erna Spoorenberg sop Helen Watts contralto Alexander Young ten Joseph Rouleau bass Brian Runnett org Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, Academy of St Martin in the Fields / George Guest (Decca/Argo)

‘Although recorded way back in 1966, this historic performance immediately set the standard for others both in sound and style and though it may possibly have been equalled since it has never been surpassed. It still glows with warmth and genuine religious fervour just as Haydn would surely have wished.’ (Geraint Lewis, Gramophone Collection, April 2014)

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