Haydn Symphonies

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Haydn Symphonies

  • Symphony No. 88, 'Letter V'
  • Symphony No. 92, 'Oxford'
  • Symphony No. 94, 'Surprise'
  • Symphony No. 9, 'Great'
  • Symphony No. 88, 'Letter V'

The Furtwangler CD couples two justly famous studio performances from the LP era, neither of which suffers unduly from comparison with alternative live recordings subsequently issued (as opposed to Furtwangler's studio-recorded Beethoven, which does). The Schubert is similar in design to at least three live versions, and yet retains its own unique charisma, with surprisingly dynamic sound, superb playing and a mastery of musical transition that is all the more remarkable for accommodating some alarming interpretative extremes – in the first movement's accelerating shift from Andante to Allegro ma non troppo, for example, or the second movement's Winterreise-like vicissitudes of mood and tempo. The Berlin Philharmonic take all this in their stride, albeit through a particularly compelling route: mountainous and spacious, with songful phrasing and due respect for the work's 'late' provenance.
As to the fill-up, this particular recording of Haydn's Symphony No. 88 is a regular 'test' case for generalized comparisons between Furtwangler and Toscanini, most specifically the maestro's drily recorded, keenly inflected and ruthlessly brilliant RCA recording of the same symphony. The Largo is a popular point of reference, with Toscanini broad and darkly Beethovenian, and Furtwangler providing a mobile, humble, almost pious alternative. True, the latter's performance has its own moments of tension (especially in the opening Adagio), but generally speaking, it remains a genial and relatively unmannered reading.
Leonard Bernstein hails from a generation or so later, and yet one cannot help but sense a continuity with the older conductor's style, at least in terms of tempo and tonal 'body'. Bernstein plays the second of the first movement repeats (Furtwangler doesn't) and his Largo is actually slower than Furtwangler's by just over a minute: it is beautiful, certainly, but rather less intense. The Vienna Philharmonic play with an ease and gracefulness that no other orchestra commands and the couplings suggest a more temperate Bernstein than we heard on those CBS Haydn recordings from a few years earlier (reissued on Sony Classical's Bernstein Royal Edition, 5/93). Still, I doubt if anyone will be much exhilarated by this Surprise, with its oddly flaccid first movement and portentous Menuet. Certain tricks tend to pall, and yet the sheer warmth of the playing invariably raises a smile. All three performances were recorded live; they sound good and, taken as a whole, this Masters CD makes for a generous bargain. However, of the two No. 88s, Furtwangler's disc is definitely the one to rush out and buy.'

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