Haydn – The London Symphonies/Marc Minkowski

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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)

Les Musiciens du Louvre ● Grenoble
Marc Minkowski

Recorded June 2009 in Konzerthaus, Vienna

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: August 2010
CD No: NAÏVE V 5176 (4 CDs)
Duration: 4 hours 46 minutes

It is impossible to summarise Marc Minkowski’s approach to Haydn’s London Symphonies: ‘eccentric’ might be one suggestion, but this is only true here and there. The term ‘challenging’ would be safer – indeed it approaches the truth but I must make it clear that it is the listener who is being challenged rather than established musical opinion. There are just a few elements of consistency among performances which in general fall into no particular pattern. Noticeable is the tendency to take the faster part of most first movements more quickly than average. The same is true of most Minuets and here I am often uncomfortable with the rhythmic aspect – many phrases seem to hasten forward – expressive enough but the oft-employed term “peasantish” that commentators so often apply to Haydn’s minuets is never appropriate in respect of Minkowski’s approach to these dance movements.

In terms of orchestral balance there are variations from time to time and Symphony 93 includes several examples that could merit either explanation. The first movement has long been a matter for discussion, Haydn asks for the main portion to be played Allegro assai yet it is difficult to make it sound comfortable at speed. Some years ago the notable (and much underrated) Haydn conductor Antonio de Almeida was preparing this symphony for recording and was unsure about the required tempo so he rehearsed it fast and then slow. Finally he elected to take a fast tempo. Some years later he said that he didn’t think he had got it right and thought he should have taken it slowly. Minkowski takes it even faster than Almeida and it comes out as a fast waltz – an approach that would have been more convincing had the rhythm been firmer – there is also a slight increase of pace at the start of the exposition repeat. The recording in this symphony is not of the clearest, the front of the orchestra predominates, sometimes timpani are unnaturally remote as in the quiet solo before the ‘bassoon surprise’ of the slow movement and the drums are modest in the Minuet yet in the Trio they are excellent – they are fine in the suitably rapid finale too. Only one subjective moment ruffles the progress and that is the decision to take the quiet phrases in the Trio slower than the remainder.

Marc Minkowski. Photograph: Lillian Birnbaum / DGI shan’t be listening to this performance of Symphony 94 again! Well-played horns represent a plus point – probably the only one – the rest falls into the minus category. In the first movement the ensemble is rather approximate, and the Minuet is presented by interpreting Haydn’s Allegro molto as Presto with the result that the trio can’t keep up the pace. In the finale the famous drum solo that Eugen Jochum once described as “the real surprise of the Surprise Symphony” is very distant and has no impact. All these reservations pale however before the heap of puerile rubbish that assails listeners’ ears at the start of the Andante. At bar 16 there are some ‘noises off’ and the music stops. It restarts at bar 8 but this time bar 16 is replaced by a lot of people yelling followed by an audience dim enough to laugh (slightly) at this idiocy, and while they are settling down the music again starts at bar 8 and this time progresses to the end of the movement. I cannot imagine why the producer could not simply edit out all this junk, there is enough music recorded to compile a proper performance of the movement.

It is strange then that a conductor who shows such disdain for the composer in Symphony 94 should give such a presentable reading of No.95. This is one of the few opening movements where Minkowski opts for a broad tempo and it is very appropriate. The Andante flows gracefully and the Minuet is ideally broad (pity about the understated drums) and this gives the solo cello the opportunity to play his important role in the Trio without slowing down. He throws in a couple of surprising ornaments but they are tasteful enough. The finale is lively although the dynamics could have been wider and the strings overwhelm in the loud sections.

The sound of No. 96 is a bit cloudy but the reading is straightforward. Minkowski observes the rarely-made second repeat in the first movement. The violin line is played as a solo at the start of the Andante (unmarked in the score but very effective). The Minuet again has this recurrent feature of reticent drums and here the same can be said of the horns, the Trio doesn’t quite manage to keep to tempo but the oboe playing is excellent and I can forgive the whimsical decorations.

No.97 is given an impressively grand slow introduction and I like Minkowski’s measured way with the Vivace section. No complaints about rhythmic solidity here. The Adagio non troppo is given with a jaunty gait but without hurry. Once again the Minuet is less than convincing – why should the fierce timpani solo marked forte be played piano – indeed anyone unfamiliar with the music would never know that this feature was intended to arrest the attention. Nevertheless, the brief violin solo in the Trio – created especially for his leader and marked by Haydn ‘Salomon Solo ma piano’ in the score is played superbly. The flying pace of the finale is very exciting and the demanding string writing is achieved with great skill – there have been moments of questionable ensemble in other works but here, in these most difficult of passages, it is immaculate.

I wish there could have been greater breadth in Symphony 98. The very slight easing forward of tempo in both the first movement and the Minuet gives an uncomfortable feeling and both are over-fast and not very expressive. On the other hand the Trio section seems to thrive at this rapid speed. The finale brings forth the question of the keyboard solo. There is no question of its effectiveness because harpsichordist Mathieu Dupouy plays it extremely well but I see no reason at all why the player could not have supplied continuo support in the rest of the symphony as Haydn would have done in his London concerts. Over 50 years ago Eugen Jochum made an excellent recording with members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and his harpsichordist played in other movements too, so why can this not be done in a performance that uses period instruments? I must give credit to Minkowski for holding firmly to the slower tempo at Haydn’s marked più moderato right to through to the end.

In No.99 Minkowski has more of a ‘big band’ approach although the only additions that Haydn made were two clarinets and a flute. He does not have such a forward wind balance as did Roger Norrington in his ‘London’ set but the weight here is appropriate and the first movement is ideally steady – the quaint slowing after the repeat to give a questioning air to the phrase is one of those subjective notions that is surprisingly effective. There is a fascinating statistical fact about this recording of the Adagio. Minkowski chooses a very slow tempo, obtains very sensitive playing and is very effective. I recall that Norrington tended to take Adagios very swiftly so I referred to his recording and was fascinated to note that this was an exception because he too underlined the reflective character of the music by taking it very slowly – amazingly it is identical in speed to the very second compared with Minkowski. Minkowski’s fast tempo for the Minuet is not unsuitable but the spectacular rising horn phrases that occur each time in the second section are buried in the orchestral texture and the Trio is smooth with no impulse – the dance origins of the movement seem to have been forgotten. Things wake up again in the powerful finale – my ongoing gripe about conductors anticipating the approach of the sudden Adagio at bar 187 does not apply here and indeed Minkowski enhances the joke by playing the sudden arrival of the Adagio extremely slowly.

Marc Minkowski We now come to No.100, the ‘Military’ Symphony. The trumpet calls, the fierce timpani attacks and the addition of what were known as ‘Turkish instruments’ (triangle, cymbals, bass drum) entirely justify this nickname. First a word about speed: fast first movement – nearly as fast as Solti who started this habit years ago – but woodwinds are obscured here and there. Good solid speed for the Allegretto and a suitable medium pace for the Minuet – a pity that the Trio goes a bit soggy though. The finale is very fast (but I don’t mean amazingly fast as per Scherchen). Questions that are sometimes asked about performances of this work often concern the percussion – there is discussion as to how continuous the triangle rolls should be and how the bass drum should be played – probably it is correct to use the Turkish style alternating one end of the stick with the other. What happens here? Well I can’t really say. No problem with the timpani – big, effective crescendo after the trumpet calls in the second movement and this time there is no problem with the solo that occurs in the finale, but as for the rest of the percussion … well, in the Allegretto the cymbals can be heard modestly being patted together, the weight of the bass drum is there but I just about hear a triangle. Turning to the finale, the percussion, other than timpani, is underplayed. Even when the bass drum is supposed to be playing on the off-beat (2 strokes per bar against one of the timpani) I don’t hear it.

No. 101 (The Clock) is given a bright reading – very lively in the first movement and the previous tendency for strings to overpower wind and drums is avoided. The ‘Clock’ movement is nicely poised – I queried the wisdom of Norrington’s rapid pace here – and Minkowski seems to have got it right and I like the pointing of the accompaniment – particularly the accenting and slight spreading of the pizzicato chords. The Minuet can often seem interminable but this time a fastish tempo works (over a minute faster than Norrington); unfortunately the wearisome oddity of not keeping up to speed in the Trio again spoils what otherwise seems one of the best performances of the series. The strings are again exceptional in the demanding figuration of the finale.

I always hope for something special in performances of the great Symphony 102. Here Minkowski has much of the fire he displayed in 101 and the balance again seems superior to that of some of the earlier symphonies. Of all these works this benefits most from the distribution to left and right respectively of first and second violins. A good example is in the first movement before the thrilling launch of the recapitulation and also in the finale where the phrases are thrown rapidly from one group to the other and Minkowski ensures that this effect is made very clear. Here too is a rapid Minuet that works and again the swiftness of the Trio enlivens the music in a way rarely heard. We don’t have the exhilaration of horns in the upper octave as with Dennis Russell Davies, Leslie Jones and Simon Rattle, but this performance has a quality that recalls others who have succeeded without such brazen enhancement – for example Mogens Wöldike, Ernst Märzendorfer and Roger Norrington’s where first and second violins are similarly antiphonal.

More controversy in 103 (Drum Roll) – yes, Minkowski is a conductor who chooses to have fun with the opening timpani solo that gives the work its name. Haydn did not specify a drum roll – in fact he did not specify anything for the opening note that he gives to the timpanist – not even a dynamic mark nor a suggested length, he just wrote ‘Intrada’ and did the same again when the passage returns near the end of the first movement. The favoured interpretation of this in both places is a loud drum roll ending in a diminuendo. To introduce the music in this recording Minkowski’s timpanist gives us a loud, multi-rhythm pattern lasting 36 seconds and on its return he provides a different 27 seconds-worth of improvisation. A case could perhaps be made in a concert performance for doing something more adventurous than a simple roll but I don’t want to hear it every time I put on a recording – well, this is a live performance and unfortunately in this case the producer did not choose to interfere. This is not a very special version of 103 – there is a good, moderate tempo for the slow movement with an excellent violin solo but the Minuet does not work – sprightly enough at first but when the Trio arrives we get that outdated, tired old cliché of the Trio being played slower than the Minuet – one of the most boring of all post-18th-century traditions – and I thought it had gone away when musicians began to take authentic-performance seriously. Unfortunately not so in this context – in the one or two other symphonies that this happened I have merely suggested that the Trio failed to keep up-to-speed but here it is obviously a deliberate reduction of tempo. In the finale we have the usual slightly abbreviated version that appears in most scores. In the complete version of the finale of Symphony 103 the autograph of the score shows bars 364-380 crossed out, but there is no doubt that they were performed in London and only after Haydn’s return to Vienna did the publishers omit them. It is said that Haydn agreed to this but I have never known any musical reason for these bars to be omitted – they are extraordinary and mysterious and even reach the remote key of C flat to dramatic effect. Since modern scholars frequently insist that cuts to Bruckner’s Symphonies should be ignored and the music performed as originally written, why should not that philosophy apply also to Haydn?

Symphony 104 (London) begins impressively – there are some exciting introductory chords and those drums that from time to time had moments of seeming distant, now complete these heavy chords firmly and are balanced admirably. In fact this symphony is recorded with better balance than most. There is a strange exception and this is at the thrilling end of the development of the first movement (bars 189-192) which finds full orchestra overwhelmed by the flourishing melody of the first violins. I happen to have a copy of the score used at the recording sessions of Leslie Jones’s second recording of this work (he was dissatisfied with his earlier Nonesuch version) and the conductor intended to make this a very big climax. This passage was re-taken more than once before it was deemed powerful enough and I even have the producer’s pencilled note on the score before me which says “do not use take 9”. Minkowski nevertheless gives a skilled reading with an eloquent, flowing Andante, a faster than usual Minuet and although the introductory phrases of the Trio are held back the tempo recovers and the dreaded slowing down habit is avoided. The finale is delightfully rapid, as it should be, and the tempo is almost as fast as that of Märzendorfer’s whirlwind version although in public performance I don’t know of anyone who has bettered Gianandrea Noseda for sheer speed.

My reservations about this set are mainly to do with sound. This small orchestra – with numbers approximately those of the London Mozart Players but with one more double bass – sounds quite large. This is suitable for the music but there is a lot of distance from front to back. Violins sometimes overpower the winds and I have a slight problem with the overall graininess of their sound. Trumpets are always modest; horns are occasionally distant (especially in Symphony 96) though at other times they are admirably clear. The timpani sometimes lack presence even when they are balanced correctly – their tonal colour is properly represented but except for solos, the impact of stick on skin is not always evident. As for the management of recording a public event, I am delighted that no applause has been left in, the between-movements gaps are all logically timed and the quiet shuffling of the audience during them sounds perfectly natural and is not at all disturbing.

Regarding the interpretations, I’ll stick with the word ‘challenging’. I could have done without those occasional unnecessary old-fashioned slowing, and one or two movements are surprisingly underplayed although that does not represent the general nature of these readings. I suppose it would be too much to hope that the disc containing the ‘Surprise’ Symphony will be reissued properly edited. It was probably supposed to be a joke but for some it could be a reason for them not to buy the set.

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