Sir Roger Norrington conducts an orchestra that employs modern instruments but uses historically informed procedures, an acceptable way of performing 18th-century music and the most important elements of ‘period’ style are employed here. We have antiphonal violins, there is practically vibrato, the timpanist uses hard sticks and Sir Roger takes a particular approach to tempo which I find mostly, though not entirely, persuasive. Especially welcome is the way he puts into practice his idea that Minuets must be “quite steady” – because in recent times there have been examples of conductors racing through these dance movements. Norrington also suggests that the marking Andante should be “by no means slow”, but I am not entirely convinced by the way in which the conductor sometimes executes that principle.
As to the recorded sound, we appear to get an accurate representation of what went on. Balance is good and detailed except when the conductor blends full-orchestra passages rather than feature the more striking instruments, such as in the brilliant outburst just before the recapitulation in the Finale of Symphony 82 starting at bar 172 (with both repeats, at 3’46” and 5’55”). At these points the exciting thrice-stated fanfare-like phrases for brass are merely loud; how disappointing not to hear the thrilling blaze of horns in C-alto achieved by Leslie Jones whose Little Orchestra of London was the same size as the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. A similar attacking, well-defined sound, perhaps a little fuller in nature, was also achieved by Charles Dutoit and the Sinfonietta de Montréal. Lacking the piercing sound of high horns in movements 1, 2 & 4 Norrington’s rapid speeds and weighty passages are insufficient to bring the music fully to life. Mention should however be made of the timpani whose player is not shy when it comes to fortissimo passages.
In many climactic passages during these Symphonies force is defined in a very characteristic way because Norrington often builds into the big moments via unwritten crescendos. To some extent this compensates for the lack of definition in the louder parts of No.82 but in the more lightly-scored No.83 it is more evident still. Even the opening theme which starts with fortissimo violins gets louder, ending on the downbeat of bar four. There are however many stylish elements and echoed phrases proliferate. Grace notes are carefully differentiated between short and long and the hen-like repeated oboes notes are charmingly exaggerated in keeping with the title of the work. The Andante leads one to question Norrington’s “by no means slow” reference. The music sounds somewhat breathless. This speedy pace could have been prompted by the observation of both repeats, since to have made them at a ‘conventional’ tempo the movement would have been very long. Sturdiness is the essence of the Minuet although the first few notes of the Trio are eased into rather quaintly on each appearance. The finale drives firmly at a lively pace.
No.84 starts with rapidity for the Adagio, but the Allegro is lively enough. Eyebrows might be raised at the Andante – six-and-a-half minutes compared with the nine taken by Dutoit – but there is logic within this unusual approach. The Minuet is subject to swelling and fading, a more acceptable idea, and the finale is notable for the clarity of the delightful woodwind parts.
Symphony 85 – reputedly a favourite of Marie Antoinette – starts in suitably measured style with beautiful, soaring high horns and an interesting manipulation of dynamics in the second subject that so closely resembles the opening of the ‘Farewell’ Symphony (No.45). The Andante is amazingly swift, Norrington three and a half minutes shorter than the by-no-means languorous Sigiswald Kuijken who gives the most sensitive recorded account of Symphony 85 I have encountered. From Norrington, woodwinds in the Trio are as expressive as could be, and his speedy take on the marking of Presto really makes the finale fly; he only beats Kuijken by 15 seconds this time though.
Back to big-band Haydn for No.86 and this is a more successful reading than that of ’The Bear’. The crispness of the introduction is fetching and the Allegro spiritoso very dashing. Maybe some will find the habit of frequently running up to a climactic point somewhat predictable but the subjective notion of fading the sequences of repeated notes works very well. Despite the resonant acoustic detail remains clear and articulation is admirable. Conversely Norrington’s approach to the Largo is very steady: a minute slower than Dutoit or Kuijken, but rhythmic strength ensures that it does not seem overlong. The Minuet, spiced with small crescendos, moves crisply forward although the bassoonist begins the solo in the Trio somewhat cautiously. Apart from the second part of Symphony 84’s Finale Norrington obeys the repeat markings. In the last movement of 86 I could also have accepted the unmarked second repeat since we have both repeats in the first movement and I believe the omission of a second repeat here is a printer’s error since with hardly any exceptions Haydn requires both halves of all pre-‘London’ Symphony sonata-movements to be repeated. While on this subject, Norrington no longer plays the repeats of Minuets after Trios, although at one time – together with Christopher Hogwood, Charles Mackerras, Trevor Pinnock, Derek Solomons and others, he did. Schools of thought are divided on this subject and Norrington has embraced both.
In general the interpretation of Minuets is a strong point in these readings of the ‘Paris’ Symphonies, but in No.87 we have a problem. Haydn wrote an interesting final bar in which the tonic chord at the end of the melody is followed by two upward-moving notes in the bass. This serves first to lead to the second repeat of the Minuet and next time it appears it leads into the Trio. However, the tonic chord has a fermata on it and beneath it. In the reliable Philharmonia/Universal Edition publication edited by H. C. Robbins Landon, ‘Fine’ is printed to indicate that at the end the two leading notes need not be played since they lead away from the closure. Unfortunately (one might say unforgivably) Norrington also leaves out these notes before the Trio, thus leaving a gap before the entry of the solo oboe (which is played with interesting decorations on repetitions). The crescendo-decrescendo shaping of many melodies is more than usually evident in the first movement especially at the quiet dying phrases at the end of exposition and coda each time. The Adagio tempo for the second movement is very well judged – much sensitivity.
Throughout these recordings I was much impressed by the astute inner balancing – the woodwinds’ melodies are never lost. Sometimes Haydn has flute or oboe joining violins, and when they do, or leave, is sometimes not evident in other versions, but here this feature is as clear as could be. This is an important set, but I feel that the rapid tempos in some slow movements may be a problem for some, if less so for me. These are challenging performances and enormous thought has gone into them. ‘The Bear’ does not work – it’s a big exciting sound but I am sure Haydn intended something leaner and with more of a cutting edge. Norrington’s account lacks essential fierceness; loudness is no substitute for individual instruments cutting through. The other Symphonies respond to the expansive acoustic far more successfully. Norrington’s ideas are very revealing even though I am not comfortable with them all.