Haydn (12) London Symphonies
Last year’s Haydn commemorations seem to have woken some people up. Nevertheless it’s still little short of a scandal that a complete period-instrument recording of all 106 symphonies has yet to be made. It may come as something as a surprise, especially given that there are already five “authentic” sets of “Paris” Symphonies, that Marc Minkowski’s new live recording is only the third period-instrument cycle of the 12 “London” Symphonies on disc: Frans Brüggen’s set from 1986-93 (Philips) is now available only as a download, while Sigiswald Kuijken’s 1990s recording (DHM) is long deleted. Whether through synchronicity or just unimaginative A&R, Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra coincidentally launch the fourth such survey with a single disc of two symphonies from Haydn’s first visit to the English capital.
The most obvious outward difference between the new recordings is their relative scale. In 1791 Haydn heard his music performed by Salomon’s orchestra of around 40 players – including 12-16 violins, four violas, five cellos and four double basses – and when Viotti’s Opera Concerts at the King’s Theatre took over in 1795, the last three “London” Symphonies were played by a band of more than 60 musicians. Minkowski’s Musiciens du Louvre field a string section of 12-9-6-6-3 with standard double woodwind, up to around 50 players in all, while Koopman’s Amsterdam players number 26, with a string contingent of 5-4-2-2-1. The direct effect of this is, naturally enough, on the sound of the performances. In Minkowski’s string-centred conception, the woodwind tint rather than colour the tuttis, while Koopman’s smaller forces empower the winds to function as individual characters in their own right. Minkowski’s brass blend and sustain within a unified orchestral sound world, while Koopman’s contrast with the wind and string sections.
Symphony No 97 offers a telling comparison between the two recordings. The two first movements, at roughly similar tempi, demonstrate the elasticity of Koopman’s nine violins against the corporate athleticism of Minkowski’s 21, while in the Amsterdam recording the woodwind solos at the end of the slow movement are more readily exploited for all their colouristic opportunities. The two minuets offer another point of contrast between the two approaches, Minkowski following the current fashion for a tempo a couple of notches brisker than Doráti’s (in his pioneering complete Haydn cycle), while Koopman takes it a couple of notches faster still, beating Minkowski to the finish by virtually a whole minute. Now I could no sooner dance a minuet than fly to the moon; but to whatever extent symphonic minuets are sublimated dance movements, I do feel that it should always be feasible to dance to them. Minkowski’s minuets don’t tend to push too hard at this constraint although Koopman’s jog-trot jigs might get tiresome as his set continues. Minkowski’s finale is a touch more agile, while Koopman brings out the greater contrast between the different instrumental sonorities.
Coincidentally again, a recording of Symphony No 97 appears from another Dutch band, the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic under Jaap van Zweden. They play on modern instruments and offer a dynamic and thrusting if more conventional reading. On another disc they offer the Hornsignal and Chasse Symphonies, harpsichord-accompanied but a reasonable modern-instrument alternative to Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus recordings, and the very early Symphony No 72. All three are imbued with the spirit of the hunt and the Dutch horns are more than equal to the task.
Minkowski’s “London” Symphonies count as the real achievement among this selection of discs, though. Here at last is a period recording that approximates the scale of the performances of the 1790s. Listeners should beware of a few caveats: the Surprise will surprise you twice, for example (fine, perhaps, in concert but another story on disc), and Symphony No 103 has been reinterpreted as the “Drum Solo” rather than the Drum Roll. There are occasional textual deviations: the Miracle’s slow movement opens with solo strings rather than tutti, which spoils the effect almost 69 bars later when Haydn actually specifies it. Symphony No 95’s opening movement is perhaps the only real misfire: its dogged four-in-a-bar ends up sounding like hard work. Of course, no set is going to please all of the people all of the time but there is every reason to regard this as a notable landmark in the Haydn discography.