Haydn – The London Symphonies/Howard Shelley

0 of 5 stars

The London Symphonies
Symphony No.93 in D
Symphony No.94 in G (Surprise)
Symphony No.95 in C minor
Symphony No.96 in D (Miracle)
Symphony No.97 in C
Symphony No.98 in B flat
Symphony No.99 in E flat
Symphony No.100 in G (Military)
Symphony No.101 in D (Clock)
Symphony No.102 in B flat
Symphony No.103 in E flat (Drum Roll)
Symphony No.104 in D (London)

Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana
Howard Shelley

Recorded in 2007 & 2008 in Auditorio Stelio MoloLugano, Switzerland

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: February 2009
CDS44371/4 (4 CDs)
Duration: 4 hours 58 minutes



This is standard Haydn in today’s terms. There is no indication as to which scores are used but it is likely that they are the very reliable Philharmonia/Universal Editions publication as edited by H. C. Robbins Landon. Howard Shelley’s observation of most of the bracketed editorial suggestions in those scores seems to suggest this.

It is always interesting to see whether a conductor will incorporate other elements based either on historical evidence or implied but unwritten in the scores. Past recorded examples of such courageous readings have included the use of the original high-G trumpet parts in Symphony No.94/(i); the use of horns in high C in 94/(ii) and in the outer movements of 95. There are recordings which employ horns in B flat alto in 102 and above all there are those that restore the fascinating passage towards the end of the finale of 103, which was in Haydn’s autograph score but never published.

Shelley does none of these adventurous things but he clearly presents what is in the score and the orchestra plays with exceptional skill. There are several sides to these interpretations: sometimes they are accurate but slightly underplayed, at other times they enhance the music by creating great rhythmic strength, and there are many examples of Shelley leading the musicians in an admirably straightforward and non-fussy manner, which I find very refreshing. Unfortunately there are also a number of sudden eccentricities of tempo although this happens in only a few of the symphonies.

The recorded balance seems to support the style of the performances admirably. In particular Shelley is at great pains to clarify the woodwind writing. He always ensures that each melody given to a solo woodwind instrument comes out clearly – a particular bonus in the case of the bassoon, which can so often be treated ungenerously by engineers. Not only is the woodwind group extremely clear but the balance within it is immaculate. Another bonus is the strong impact made by the horns. So often in performances using modern instruments, today’s relatively narrow-bore trumpets overpower the horns, but not so here. Timpani are given a natural balance and if they sometimes seem understated I suspect that it is more to do with the timpanist than the engineers since there is a tendency for the drums to be especially soft in passages marked piano; on the other hand it is good that the texture of these instruments is not over-warm.

Symphony No.93 includes both the best and a few elements of the questionable within this one interpretation. The opening is a true call to attention and the Allegro is very well paced, orchestral detail is admirably clear yet there is the occasional whim – a sudden slowing and fading just before the repeat that does not occur the second time round, there is also an unusual hesitation before the recapitulation but this makes more musical sense. The slow movement is fine with excellent string-quartet playing at the start. Haydn’s famous joke as the bassoon suddenly and crudely hits the right note near the end is judged exceptionally well. It sounds loud and funny but not (as with Szell) grossly overdone. I recall a concert performance by Doráti that caused the audience to laugh out loud at this point – and why not? The Minuet is given a calm, neat reading. I’d have liked to hear the implied timpani crescendo before the tutti around bars 35-37 which is adopted by a number of conductors but I cannot criticise Shelley for merely playing what is in the score. The fanfare after the first double bar of the Trio is given a strange fading and slowing effect at its end – an effect only slightly suggested on the repeat. The finale is calm, bright and full of clean, strongly rhythmic playing.

No.94 (Surprise) has similar characteristics – with a well-controlled, fairly swift tempo for the Allegro of the first movement, but there is another example of a small but unconvincing slow-down before the repeat. The famous ‘Surprise’ chord in the Andante again finds Shelley judging just the right amount of emphasis to amuse but not crudely to overpower. An ideal tempo is set for the Minuet, short grace notes are used (I slightly prefer them to be played long – Scherchen was the first to do so). The Trio is more controversial: it enters late, the bassoon loses the tempo, the strings pull the speed back to near that of the Minuet, but every time the bassoon returns with the melody the tempo slackens and becomes variable. I have heard worse (notably Thomas Fey) but I see no musical justification for this procedure. The finale is taken moderately but with excellent playing and superb woodwind phrasing – the fierce timpani outburst (referred to by Eugen Jochum as “the real surprise”) is played precisely enough but it lacks the power required to arrest attention.

No.95 again finds the music being played at ideally chosen tempos but this time with no great power. The first two movements flow by crisply and uneventfully but the Minuet is not convincing. It starts with a delightful swing to the rhythm and employs correctly-long grace notes but the threatening beat of the drum near the end goes for nothing. When the Trio is reached the cello solo is played much slower and with much freedom of tempo – nor do I care for the whimsical decoration that is added during the repeat of the second half of the section. This performance of the Trio brings to mind the phrase “slowing down for the hard bit” The finale is elegant and cheerful but it is too late to salvage the interpretation.

No.96 (Miracle) is another matter – fine playing here and rather more impact. This time the bassoon-led melody is superbly fashioned and the rhythmic accompanying drum-patterns are etched clearly. I forgive the holding back at the end of the exposition and there is genuine sense of eagerness throughout. The bouncy Andante is a delight with clear delineation of the varied instrumentation used for each melody. In the Minuet the carefully presented balance within the brass section is a great advantage, particularly so when, after the first double bar, the horns answer the trumpets with suitable firmness. The delightfully winsome oboe-led Trio retains the dance element: there are several expressive moments but much elegant shaping. The finale has strength and conviction – the flute decorations at the fermata near the end do nothing to help continuity but musicians can sometimes be allowed an occasional moment of being wayward.

No.97 is one of Haydn’s most proto-Beethoven symphonies; the broad tempo for the opening movement’s Vivace is immensely suitable. The slow movement seems not to settle into tempo until the theme has been fully stated but Haydn’s challenging effect of the cellos playing close to the bridge is very well brought off. The Minuet is a powerful movement with four tremendous drum passages marked both solo and fort‘ but they all start so quietly each time that only the last few notes of the pattern can be discerned. An uncomfortable gap precedes the Trio, which tries to recover the basic speed but never quite does so. The finale is notable for featuring the exciting repeated horn notes near the start and for remarkably clean playing especially in the fierce fugal passages for strings. The timpani are less shy here. There is one disappointment however – at bar 318, just after a long-held pause, where there is a delightful pizzicato ‘plonk’ from the strings. Haydn has a forte dynamic here but in his edition Landon suggests that it should be fortissimo and this is justified by Birchall’s publication, which is contemporary with Haydn. It is rather frustrating that Shelley should have this chord played so quietly.

No.98 has much of the boldness that seems be a feature of the sound in the works later than No.96. (I have no proof however that the works were recorded in numerical order so this is probably mere co-incidence.) I find the opening movement joyfully rhythmic and very dramatic as a result. The swiftly-flowing Adagio is a good deal less convincing, it passes by with no great conviction and there is little time for sensitive phrasing. Shelley is through it in less than five minutes (compared, for example, with Abbado’s six-and-a-half). The Minuet is strong but yet again the Trio gives trouble: there is a late entry and loss of tempo. I think a suitable description for this habit is “old hat”. I thought it had died out somewhere in the middle of the 20th-century. This is a pity because the finale is immensely bright and strong. The important keyboard solo is played on a fortepiano and the usual convention is adopted in that this is the only time the instrument appears. I am sure that in early performances Haydn did not sit doing nothing until the solo came along – after all we know he directed this symphony (and the others) from the keyboard. True, the harmonies elsewhere are sufficiently full and it could be argued that a keyboard is not absolutely essential (although I have heard some delightful harpsichord elaboration on other recordings) but leaving the instrument silent except for a few moments has never seemed convincing.

No.99 commences a succession of performances in which Shelley is more direct and less concerned with minor manipulations of speed. The remarkable woodwind detail continues to be a positive feature. This is the first symphony in which Haydn uses clarinets. This was not a favourite instrument of his but he writes for it most imaginatively. Shelley takes a daringly swift speed for the main part of the first movement and is ideally sensitive. The slower-than-usual Adagio is played with greater feeling than many of its companions in this set and this time I am able to praise the Minuet. I like the way the powerful rising four-note horn phrase in the second section is given out with a suitable degree of power and although the oboe introduction to the Trio is momentarily held back, this time it becomes a convincing example of personal phrasing and does not disrupt the general flow. I can even accept the gentle winding-down prior to the reprise of the Minuet. The finale is full of traps but Shelley falls into none of them. For example, Haydn’s little joke of leaving the horns’ last two notes behind after the early statements of the main theme is sometimes overstated but Shelley amuses us all the more by casually throwing them away. Another danger is Haydn’s witty idea of reducing the tempo to Adagio for just two bars (187-188). So often a conductor will nudge the listener crudely in the ribs by slowing well before this point as if to say, “look – a joke is coming along in a moment”. Shelley just plays what is in the score – this is far more amusing.

No.100 (Military) is just as successful with well-judged tempos and decent percussion matched equally by the timpani. The latter are nicely audible and generally supportive in the first movement but in the second and fourth movements the onslaught of other percussion finds them giving as much as their companions. It is interesting that Haydn is not yet reconciled to the clarinets – he uses them only in the ‘Military’ movements (the second and fourth). The Andante is here made truly military and the trumpet solo and following ‘clash of arms’ is splendidly done. The Minuet is given with poise; despite a minimally late entry at the start of the Trio, the tempo is carried through unbroken. The finale of the ‘Military’ is generally exciting but there is just one reservation: the fierce timpani solo at bars 122-123 is far too mild and actually sounds rather distant.

This is perhaps the moment to mention Shelley’s approach to repeats: basically he takes them all and in the Minuets he follows the normal convention of repeating both parts before the Trio but neither after. In symphonies 97, 100 and 104, however, this is not an option. No.97 is clear – everything is written out in full with different orchestration on repeats therefore both repeats are automatically made after as well as before the trio. In 100 and 104 another matter has to be considered because Haydn writes the first repeat in full with different orchestration but puts the conventional repeat mark for the second section. Clearly this repeat must also be made after the Trio in order to regularise the proportions. I am sorry that Shelley does not do this because we are left with a ‘three-legged’ feeling. That written-down first repeat persuades the ear that it is always essential to hear the second. Shelley omits the equivalent in 104 also.

No.101 Clock is given a vivid reading with recording to match. I was able to hear woodwind phrases that seem never to have emerged in recordings before. The three-bar-long flute phrases, fifteen bars before the close of the first movement, are just about impossible to hear (in one previous recording the flutes were actually asked to stand up for the passage in order to be closer to the microphones). Hyperion has succeeded in making them almost audible – the rest of the orchestra is playing forte in a different rhythm so the poor flutes don’t have much chance. There are wonderful flying string passages – and those in the first movement come off magnificently. The stressing of the rhythm makes this complex music particularly exciting. The ‘Clock’ movement itself is taken very swiftly and this works triumphantly, there is clarity and precision throughout. No difficulties with the remaining movements either, the Minuet moves firmly forward and the complex inner working of the finale with its detailed fugue remains clear throughout. The first tutti attack is exceptionally exciting – I wish this sort of bold chording had been evident in the earlier works. This one of the finest performances I have heard of this work. Ernst Märzendorfer and Charles Mackerras are in the same league and also have good recorded sound but Shelley probably has the edge.

No.102 shows the new-found power a little less in evidence and there are one or two examples of Haydn’s dramatic points being presented clearly but without emphasis. Shelley has the horns playing at the lower octave as is the case with most performances, but once having heard them in B flat alto it is difficult to forget the effect (Simon Rattle uses horns at that pitch). For most Haydn-enthusiasts the big moment in the first movement is the remarkable timpani crescendo that catapults the music into the recapitulation. Here it is played as the score directs but I could have taken a touch of exaggeration. What did Haydn mean when asking for the timpani to be dampened in the slow movement? Presumably he wanted a dry sound – not all conductors obey this instruction but get the effect by having the player use hard sticks. I am unable to identify what is done here since these instruments underplay. The conductor has now got over his fear of the double bar and the Trio flows beautifully and long grace notes enhance the melodic line. This is not the most powerful performance of the finale (or maybe the ear is still searching for horns in the high octave) but the string-playing is as superb as ever. The loud tutti passages to not terrify as sometimes they can (I recall a fifty-year-old recording by Mogens Wöldike that did exactly that) but Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana gives a superbly polished account.

No.103 (Drum Roll) does not cause any controversy – the eponymous drum-roll is played the sensible ‘modern’ way (fortissimo-decrescendo) on both its appearances. Haydn merely marked it “Intrada”, which gives some freedom – I like Kuijken’s notion of prolonging the roll and making a pause before the entry of the bassoon; on the other hand I found Abbado’s military tattoo somewhat worrying. Shelley is admirably straightforward in most things and the texture makes the presence of clarinets very clear – interestingly the work has occasionally been recorded without clarinets (Jochum; Wöldike) and this probably stems back to Haydn’s time when Gombart published the work. In September 1799 that firm sent it to “Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung” for review but it included no clarinet parts. One welcome detail in the slow movement – which is kept flowing in a most persuasive way – is the refusal of the engineers to home-in on the solo violin. It is played superbly but emanates from the body of the orchestra rather than being spot-lit. I keep feeling that Shelley may have been exploring these symphonies in numerical order because he is certainly firmer and more definite in his direction of these later works and the orchestra seems more ‘present’. It would be unusual for a recording team to change microphone placements so I assume this must be attributed to musical thinking. There is just a slight hesitation before the Trio but the ‘whims’ seem to have gone away. Splendid brazen horns introduce the finale – a pity those cut bars near the end were not replaced though (I have to admit that Haydn is not known to have objected to their removal). There are a couple of emphatic pauses before subsequent returns of the horn introduction but nothing eccentric.

No.104 (London) finds this strength retained – a very powerful full orchestra introduces the work: no reticence from the drums here. I half expected a dramatic pulling-back before the recapitulation – a legitimate effect but it seems that Shelley is now being very classical and non-subjective. Flow and even-pulse inform the Andante and there is a fine Minuet with no double-bar troubles. His finale incorporates powerful fortissimo passages that are sometimes played down by other conductors. Haydn’s life work as a symphonic composer is brought to a close with grandeur – and that is how it should be.

I wonder of these discs will be issued separately? Some are worthy of placement along the finest issued to date. I am a little puzzled as to why my reaction became more favourable as I listened in numerical order. There are moments in the earlier symphonies that I find it hard to accept but throughout I was deeply impressed by the lucid orchestral textures. I assume the orchestra to be approximately the size of the English Chamber Orchestra or London Mozart Players – whatever size it may be it makes for exemplary balance. When I have criticised this aspect it may be because some instruments have occasionally underplayed.

This is a well-engineered set, great care has been taken and I can make one unusual observation concerning production and that is that I appreciate the generous space given between movements. The admirable recorded quality seems to improve in proportion to the satisfaction I received from the performances – in other words, once again I prefer later to earlier. As I write this I decided to put on headphones and return to the exciting finale of Symphony 104. I do not normally listen in this way but it seems to reveal the general excellence even more strikingly.

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