Haydn The London Symphonies
When they first appeared on LP, between 1976 and 1982, Sir Colin Davis's recordings of Haydn's climactic ''London'' Symphonies drove many a hard-bitten critic to paeans of superlatives. Though five of the works found their way on to disc some time ago, Philips have been mysteriously reluctant to issue the complete set on CD. Now, at last, those who didn't catch the LP versions can appreciate what they were missing by acquiring this new box, which benevolently accommodates the 12 symphonies on four mid-price CDs, at an average playing time of over 75 minutes. As to the performances, they represent arguably the most consistently penetrating survey of the ''London'' Symphonies ever committed to disc. No conductor surpasses Davis in his command of both the local detail and the long-range tonal drama of Haydn's intricate and astonishingly diverse sonata structures. Tempos are, almost without exception, uncannily well judged. For all their exhilarating impetus and strength of rhythm, Allegros have space to breathe and to sing; minuets truly dance, imperiously, exuberantly or comically, earthy energy and symphonic sophistication held in ideal equilibrium. Andantes have a lithe, feline grace, yet, except, perhaps, for that of No. 95, are never too skittish to betray their dramatic or introspective developments; and Davis realizes all the poetry and burdened breadth of the great Adagios in Nos. 98, 99 and 102.
One or two nugatory lapses apart, the Concertgebouw plays quite superlatively throughout, the basses magnificently firm and articulate (how much of the character of these performances stems from Davis's attention to the shaping and harmonic direction of the bass lines), the violins shining and supple, the winds mellow and refined, exemplary in their blending and chording. Abetted by Philips's wonderfully lucid, spacious recording, Davis savours to the full the subtlety, fantasy and sheer brazen power of the composer's scoring, endorsing Rimsky-Korsakov's claim that Haydn was the greatest of all orchestrators.
A few of the finales, notably in Nos. 94, 96 and 97, may strike some listeners as slightly sober, lacking the last degree of brio, bravura and wit, though Davis's shrewd, steady unfolding of the music has a compelling cumulative strength. And if one might take issue with his dogged, Landler-ish tempo for the Allegro molto minuet of the Surprise, he is invariably magnificent when Haydn himself scales the supreme heights: in Nos. 98 and 99 (the latter Davis's professed favourite), whose first movements have a reach and dramatic sweep unmatched in any performances I know; and in the final trilogy, crowned by a truly great reading of No. 104, noble, spacious and commanding, the Andante perfectly poised between dance and hymn, the finale overwhelming in its mingled grandeur, poetic vision and blazing bucolic energy.
I suppose I ought to mention that Davis begins No. 103 not with the fortissimo drum roll customary nowadays but with the