HAYDN Paris Symphonies – Harnoncourt
When the members of a Parisian concert society commissioned a set of symphonies from Haydn in the mid-1780s they would have looked forward to receiving works of the most up-to-date and sophisticated kind by the genre’s acknowledged master. The arrival of a recording of the Paris Symphonies by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Concentus Musicus will have aroused a similar sense of anticipation in some and, just as Haydn must have surpassed expectations with his six superb creations, so the wonders of this three-disc set are surely more than even Harnoncourt fans can have hoped for.
But, you say, was that three discs? Yes, Harnoncourt takes every repeat going, which means sonata-movement second halves, full sets of repeats for minuets and trios and even a repeat for No 85’s slow introduction, with the result that most of the performances come in at just over half an hour. But if this makes for one more disc than the norm, there is certainly no danger of the music outstaying its welcome. 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.
For that alone we should be thankful, but these are also just about the most enjoyable and involving Paris performances you are likely to come across. The Concentus Musicus are on superb form, serving up a sound both clear and substantial, with horns a more than usually dark flavouring. And Harnoncourt is typically alert to every message the music has for us, drawing drama, humour, tenderness and colour at all turns, leaving the listener nothing to do but gasp, smile or glow in his wake.
There is barely room here to list this set’s distinguishing delights, but among the most memorable are the fooling with the placing of the final chords of No 82, the leisured unrolling of the main theme of No 84’s first movement, the fiercely stabbing wind chords of No 83’s finale (as if the minor-key outcries of the first movement had not been enough strong stuff for one symphony), and the gloriously unleashed pedal notes at the climax of No 85. Furthermore, Harnoncourt treats each symphony – indeed each movement, each bar – on its own terms. Among other things this can mean a tough manipulation of pulse, with minuets in particular highly individualised and the delicious trios often allotted their own slower tempi, and this may be where some listeners have a problem: Harnoncourt’s spacious attention to detail comes slightly at the expense of momentum, and you may wish for the kind of bluff, rolling bonhomie that you can get in this music from, say, Sigiswald Kuijken and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. But Harnoncourt has shown here that there is more to the Paris Symphonies than that – so much more, in fact, that you have to wonder if they can ever be the same again.