In directing his twelve newly-composed Symphonies in London during his visits between 1791 and 1795, Haydn was provided with a larger number of players than that generally available to him and new colours were infiltrating into his music – as in his decision to include, for the first time in his Symphonies, clarinets, which appear in all but one of his last six. In using a ‘modern’ orchestra Leonard Slatkin reflects some of the musical grandeur which London audiences would have experienced during the 1790s.
The excellent sound (perhaps a touch more immediate in the Blackheath-recorded items) is revealing with far more detail evident from the woodwinds than can be heard in many an alternative recording. The brass is firm and rich but does not overpower and timpani have a natural clarity. Slatkin’s approach is a little reserved at times, but the remarkable detail adds impact and therefore emphasis of the louder passages is not necessary.
Both earlier and later Symphonies are combined on each disc to reflect the original releases. We start with 94, 98 and 104 and they include good examples of Slatkin’s measured approach along with the occasional whim. All is sturdy in No.94 with no exaggeration of the famous ‘Surprise’ in the slow movement. Nothing ruffles the pleasing straightforwardness except for a strangely hesitant entry into the Minuet’s Trio. The Finale is spick and span yet the fierce drum solo towards the end (the feature that Eugen Jochum described as “the real surprise in the ‘Surprise’ Symphony”) does sound rather polite. In No.98 a nineteenth-century texture is evident (perhaps because the horns are put into their lower register) and the Trio section is a bit sluggish. The virtuosic harpsichord solo in the Finale with which Haydn delighted his audiences is here very distant and ill-defined. The ‘London’ Symphony has a certain nobility but again there’s a whim at the Trio where the first four notes are hugely held back. I assume that the intention was to give the effect of a prelude to the rest of the section. Where the imposition of the conductor’s will truly convinces is exactly four minutes into the Finale – a wonderfully nostalgic passage in which the subtle easing of tempo magically enhances the beauty of the music.
The sequence of Symphonies 103, 96 and 102 make an interesting combination. In 96 I am surprised at the mildness of the horns in their fanfare-like passages in the first movement and the sleepiness of what should be a bouncing Trio. How different the equivalent sections in the other two Symphonies where the underlying sense of dance is retained and in that part of No.102 we even get the authentic appoggiaturas which many conductors ignore. There are no high horns in 102 and the thirteen bars that went missing from the Finale of 103 between performance in London and publication in Vienna are not included.
93, 99 and 100 comprise the third disc and here the unaffected straightforwardness of Slatkin’s approach impresses greatly – especially in 93 where the first movement’s Allegro assai is expounded with confidence. Momentum is admirable as is the gentility of the Largo cantabile which includes one of Haydn’s little jokes when the bassoon loudly finds the right note that all the other instruments failed to discover. On each appearance, my favourite drum crescendo heralds the forte at the end of bar thirty-five in the Minuet – I don’t care that Haydn did not indicate it because the music certainly does. The same boldness of approach inhabits No.99: a nice element of lightness throughout the Minuet and a swinging pulse. I do find the ‘Military’ Symphony understated – where is that daring additional percussion? It is there only if you listen very hard. Hear Hermann Scherchen, for in the second movement it is with him that Haydn’s “hellish roar of war” is truly achieved.
Symphonies 95, 97 and 101 are on the final disc. A greyish 95 but then this is mostly dark, serious music. It is a pity that the excellently played cello solo in the third movement is brought in at a slower pace – it seems condescending to the soloist as though the music needed to ‘slow down for the hard bit’. Liveliness is much more in evidence in No.97 where there are delightful contrasts of mood in the Andante and although there is a lack of forward pulse, the Trio boasts fine solo-violin playing – presumably it is Hugh Bean who was leading the Philharmonia at that time and is identified in the variation movement of 103. The ‘Clock’ Symphony is notable for the accuracy with which the difficult string parts (violins antiphonal) in the outer movements are played yet there are moments of understatement – for example: timpani, though clearly defined, tend to be modest in the realisation of Haydn’s forte markings.
I appreciate the philosophy of Slatkin’s overall approach – straightforward in general but with plenty of expression – repeats (a very generous supply) are played with surprisingly exact similarity to the first statements; often they take the same amount of time to the very second. How different the view taken by Leopold Stokowski who, at a recording session once said: “Gentlemen, our producer has just pointed out that we played this figure a different way when we made the repeat. Does it have to be same each time?” Because of Slatkin’s general consistency of pace, his occasional sudden alterations of tempo can be startling; nevertheless, these are carefully thought-through and sympathetic performances.
This budget set’s presentation is minimal: there is no booklet, the attractive original covers are jettisoned, and discographical information is at a premium – no mention of producer Andrew Keener or the respective engineers, who were Mark Vigars, Simon Rhodes and Mike Hatch.