Haydn – The London Symphonies/Roger Norrington

0 of 5 stars

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)

Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Sir Roger Norrington

Recorded 7-12 September 2009 in Hegelsaal, Liederhalle, Stuttgart

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: April 2010
CD 93.252 (4 CDs)
Duration: 4 hours 57 minutes



A brickbat to begin with: it’s a pity that applause has been retained after every performance, particularly as its removal is easy. After all, the performances are intended to be heard at home and intrusive applause – always about 25 seconds of it each time – is forced upon the listener after every symphony. Fine in the concert hall, of course, but I don’t need it in my living room.

To the performances of Haydn’s London Symphonies themselves, and these suggest a conductor who has changed and developed since he was a familiar figure in the UK. With his Stuttgart orchestra Norrington’s interpretations differ in style from those familiar some years ago with London Classical Players. For example: once a strong advocate of playing both Minuet repeats after as well as before Trios, Sir Roger Norrington now follows the long-accepted convention of only making them before the trio. Then there is the matter of tempo for the Minuets – sometimes he is broader than hitherto but always, and to his great credit, he never indulges in the tired old trick of slowing down for the Trio. The few older Haydn recordings of his that I have heard seem to suggest that he now tends towards greater breadth in opening movements and slightly greater speed in finales. His slow movements always tended to be quick and this has not changed and another unchanged factor is Norrington’s sometimes wilful manipulation of phrases which frequently involves strong dynamic changes within a melody. I seem to recall that at one time Colin Davis also did this but mostly in his younger days. There is the occasional unspecified use of solo strings, and fortepiano continuo is used throughout. Haydn probably used such an instrument in London although the concert notices of the time often said that he would be directing from the harpsichord.

The very first chord of Symphony 93 foreshadows the style of what is to come – it is immensely powerful and the introduction is slow and serious. This is followed by an admirably unhurried Allegro – something in this music responds to a broad approach. The slow movement is swift by most standards and contains quirky gentle timpani crescendos during their repeated notes. I’d describe this reading as characterful and peasant-like. The bassoon ‘joke’ is all the more effective for remaining part of the flow when that instrument at last finds the note that all other instruments have searched for in vain. Norrington regards this simply as a firm resolution to comical indecision and does not resort to a heavy ‘nudging in the ribs’ approach. A dancing rather than powerful Minuet follows; the power is reserved for the fanfare-filled Trio. The medium-paced finale swells and fades and the strings are sometimes held back to illuminate some woodwind phrases>

Symphony 94 is forceful and bold and there is noticeably little vibrato. A very fast ‘Surprise’ movement is followed by an extremely swift Minuet but Haydn does mark it Allegro molto. It comes off well and the Trio keeps to the same tempo. Altogether a good rough and tumble version – nothing underplayed but with much moulding and there is a fine timpani solo in the finale.

Symphony 95 opens fast and incisively with a light touch and there follows a well-inflected dance-like Andante cantabile with subtle interjections from fortepiano and this applies also to the Minuet which is ideally slow: what a relief to hear the cellist not slowing down for the difficult solo. In the exciting finale the stressing of the timpani near the end is a deft touch.

I always think that the introduction to Symphony 96 should have trumpets and drums (but then so does a notoriously inauthentic score). The first movement is taken more broadly than usual and is on a big scale – especially as the rarely-heard repeat of long second part is observed. The second statement of the coda is surprisingly powerful – after all there is no reason for repeats to be identical. The swift slow movement works well. In the sturdy Minuet, the repeated horn notes echoing the trumpets at the start of the second section are surprisingly understated. In the Trio the fortepiano points the peasant-like rhythm of the accompaniment delightfully and the modest oboe decorations on the repeats are tasteful. The finale is swift and light. “The last movement I recommend to be played as pianissimo as possible and the tempo very quick” wrote Haydn to Marianne von Genzinger. Norrington probably knows this.

Symphony 97 has a faster, more flowing introduction than usual but there is much breadth in the Vivace section and Norrington is not afraid to introduce crescendos to make dramatic points. There is a tendency to more legato playing than elsewhere, a touch smoother with arching phrasing in longer melodies. The waltz-like character of the second subject is well brought out. There are a few nice spread keyboard chords at restful moments but not the prefatory delightful upward sweep that the moment before the coda seems to demand and there is another opportunity before the coda of the finale that is not taken (I listen in hope for either of these ever since I first heard it created in both places by harpsichordist Harold Lester). The swift, elegant slow movement does not go greatly into the implied depths of feeling that some musicians bring out. The Minuet is full of strength – magnificent timpani solos and above all a splendid bucolic swing is given to the Trio section and there is imaginative continuo support. At this pace, the finale puts enormous demands on the strings in their furious flying passages in the centre of the movement but the players take it all in their stride.

In Symphony 98, I like the clipped approach to the opening chords – not quite the required full-note lengths but dramatic in effect. There are no pealing high horns as with Dennis Russell Davies, but Norrington does not allow his use of the lower octave to muddy the internal balance. On the other hand the important part for first oboe – especially in the Allegro – seems rather subdued. By Norrington’s standards this is a relatively spacious performance of the soulful Adagio but there are many views regarding the interpretation of this movement. The Minuet is ideally lively with good flute and bassoon solos and a finale that really flies. The oboe is more clearly defined here and is excellent at solo moments. Norrington has the perfect (and in my view only) approach to the sudden moderato marking that Haydn places 58 bars before the end – he simply holds the speed rock-steady until the last bar. Many distinguished interpreters have failed to do this. The keyboard solo is well-balanced and is set against solo violin. Some scores mark the keyboard part ‘cembalo solo’ but do not indicate a solo for the violin but that part is very effective when played as such.

As expected, Norrington gives power to Haydn’s more fully scored Symphony 99. The horns are given strength and the new timbre of the clarinets is clearly evident – interesting how Haydn, while deciding to adopt these instruments late in his career rarely gave them a great deal to do. The Adagio is a rare example of Norrington choosing the slow side of average and this does add point to the many isolated woodwind passages, interspersed with comforting lyrical comments from the strings. A calm, unhurried, swinging Minuet sounds comfortable rather than challenging and no attempt is made to underline the rising horn figure (it could take a bit of exaggeration). Even the finale is more easygoing than might be expected from this conductor but the playing is always elegant and Norrington pleases me greatly by playing the sudden ‘slow-down’ joke absolutely straight and exactly as per the score.

Coming to Symphony 100 I wondered what the sometimes provocative Norrington would make of the forceful elements of the ‘Military’ Symphony. Well at least he doesn’t understate the timpani – so often their detail is lost in favour of the other percussion and in the first movement they are really unleashed in the coda. It is good too that the opening movement is not rushed. Clarinets are subsequently added to give a martial element to the music and Norrington has a very quick interpretation of the military-style Allegretto, which is urged along once again by imaginative keyboard continuo. Triangle, cymbals and bass drum could have been given much more presence though – the most exciting moment is the timpani crescendo after the trumpet calls near the end of the Allegretto. A brisk and lively Minuet has the disappointment of the missing second repeat after the trio – this skews the symmetry of the music. The finale is very fast indeed but not quite the mad speed of Hermann Scherchen nor indeed is Norrington so exciting – altogether this is a decent ‘Military’ but there’s nothing special about it.

Symphony 101 has demanding string-writing as the music launches from the Adagio introduction into the Presto. This time Norrington is less measured in the first movement but the playing is as crisp and accurate as ever, there are fewer dynamic stresses perhaps and woodwinds gets swamped by brass and strings towards the end of the movement. The ‘Clock’ slow movement is a rather odd – hugely fast and the spread chords imposed by the fortepiano lead the ear to hear a rhythm that was never intended. I have not previously heard the movement raced through at such a pace. There are no objections to swiftness in the Minuet however – a slow tempo can sometimes make it seem to last forever – but why, on their return after the Trio, has timpani moved further left for the quiet solo at the start of the second section? The Trio itself has its pairs of notes slurred together with a resultant hesitation in the flow – the full orchestra passages are up to tempo but the string phrases are slack. It is not until the finale that Norrington’s bright, forceful style comes into play. Important chords are particularly firmly stressed – in all, an eccentric 101.

No exciting high horns in 102 as per Simon Rattle or Dennis Russell Davies but a certain amount of excitement nevertheless. This is a symphony on a large scale and Norrington respects it. The best of the firmness which he applied to some other works is here. In the development section of the first movement, the division left and right of first and second violins makes for delightful antiphonal – or perhaps one could say ‘stereophonic’ – effect and the amazing drum crescendo is given full value. Here is another swift slow movement but this time it is possible to phrase subtly at this pace and still be effective. It is gratifying to have the remaining movements played in Norrington’s ‘simple’ style – yes a touch or two of whimsical phrasing here and there (sudden legato moments being a feature) but mostly good strong rhythm and much forward drive.

No tricks with the eponymous ‘drumroll’ at the start of Symphony 103 – I tire of the quaint cadenzas sometimes used by others to represent Haydn’s non-specific instruction: ‘Intrada’. Norrington simply gives us the conventional fortissimo-diminuendo roll. Sometimes in the first movement conductors can surprise by playing the grace note in the twice-stated melody of the second subject in a clipped fashion – very unconvincing – but I am confused by Norrington who plays it firstly short and subsequently long – how does he really mean this tune to sound? In his EMI recording he played the grace note short both times. Following this, here is a case where a slow movement taken at considerable speed is acceptable and this long set of variations benefits from the dance-like approach. All credit to the leader for accuracy and rhythmic liveliness in the demanding violin solo and credit to the engineers for a natural balance. A surprisingly slow Minuet follows but the music can take it and Haydn’s rare use of clarinets as melody instruments in the Trio is clearly delineated. There is no difference in volume in the twice-stated opening horn call of the finale (on his previous recording Norrington played the second entry as an echo) – a fiery reading here with only one complaint: the usual omission of an interesting section of music after bar 365. Apparently these measures were played in London but they were cut from the editions printed in Vienna on Haydn’s return from England.

The main concern regarding Symphony 104 is the omission of the second repeat of the Minuet after the trio – both repeats were there in Norrington’s previous recording (the first repeat has to be played because Haydn wrote it out in full in order to vary the instrumentation). There are ongoing discussions about playing all repeats both before and after trios but in 104 (and also in 100) omission of the final second repeat ruins the symmetry because the first repeat has already been made. Did I perhaps detect an instrument erroneously playing the first note of an abandoned further repeat just before the entry of the trio? A pity about this for it is a much better version than the EMI recording – it is stronger in impulse and more clearly recorded and the finale is a real tour de force.

Hänssler’s recorded sound is notably good throughout the set. Trumpets are not allowed to overpower but blend very well with the horns – n fact brass chords are always beautifully balanced and the ‘period’ sound of the timpani is ideal. The woodwind has a little less presence than in other recordings but the section is well balanced within itself. As for the fortepiano continuo, well, this instrument can often be virtually inaudible in concerts so we are fortunate to hear it at least now and again. When audible the player is imaginative and only lumpy chording at the start of the slow movement of the ‘Clock’ Symphony is disappointing.

There are plenty of controversial moments yet Norrington’s testing ideas are always interesting. It is necessary to accept his extreme flexibility of dynamics and phrasing together with his love of imposing legato in places it has never been heard before but this is always in the context of firmly held tempo – that is the most refreshing factor in this challenging release.

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