Scherchen’s Haydn

0 of 5 stars

No.44 in E minor (Trauer)
No.45 in F sharp minor (Farewell)
No.49 in F minor (La passione)
No.55 in E flat (Schoolmaster)
No.80 in D minor
No.88 in G
No.92 in G (Oxford)
No.93 in D
No.94 in G (Surprise)
No.95 in C minor
No.96 in D (Miracle)
No.97 in C
No.98 in B flat
No.99 in E flat
No.100 in G (Military)
No.101 in D (Clock)
No.102 in B flat
No.103 in E flat (Drum Roll)
No.104 in D (London)

Vienna Symphony Orchestra
(Nos.55, 80, 95, 97, 100, 102-4)

Vienna State Opera Orchestra
(Nos.44, 45, 49, 88, 92-94, 96, 98-9, 101)

Hermann Scherchen

Recorded in Vienna 1950-1958

Reviewed by: Tim Ashley

Reviewed: December 2004
CD No: DG 471 256-2 (6 CDs)
Duration: 7 hours 44 minutes

This remarkable, disquieting set in DG’s Original Masters series contains the series of Haydn symphonies that Hermann Scherchen recorded for the Westminster label in Vienna between 1950 and 1958. Their existence may come to many as a something of a surprise. Scherchen is so closely associated in the public imagination with the 20th-century avant-garde, that the realisation that a considerable part of his discography consists of 18th-century music inevitably causes something akin to dismay.

We think of him primarily as one of the great champions of Mahler, the conductor of early performances of “Pierrot Lunaire”, who went on to put “Moses und Aron” on the map in the years following Schoenberg’s death. This was also the man who founded the left-wing contemporary music journal “Melos” in the wake of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and years later set up the “Centre for Electro-Acoustic Research” at Gravesano in Switzerland.

Haydn initially seems to sit uneasily with such a biography, rooted, as it is, in radical experimentalism. Such a view, of course, side-steps the central issue of Haydn’s career, namely that he was himself a radical experimenter, and one of the greatest. A musical form can only become concrete when all its existing potentialities have been exhausted. Haydn’s symphonies arguably constitute the most daring single exploration of formin all music, and one that had the most devastating impact, in that all subsequent symphonic experimentation must of necessity take him as a point of departure. Those cosy appellations – “Papa Haydn”, “the father of the symphony” and so on, still prevalent – obscure both his reputation and his purpose.

The reasons for Scherchen’s attraction consequently seem obvious. Believing Haydn’s music to be underplayed out of proportion to his reputation, he regularly scheduled his works in his concert programmes throughout his life. Once his contract with the Westminster label was signed, he expressed his determination to record the twelve ‘London Symphonies’ in their entirety (no one had done so before), interwoven with the remaining symphonies gathered here.

Half a century on, the results are still unnerving. Throughout, one is acutely conscious of an avant-garde conductor performing the work of an avant-garde composer. All these recordings are characterised by daring extremes of emotional and expressive range. Scherchen restores the danger to Haydn’s music, showing it to possess qualities of urgency, elation, despair and even neurosis that pass beyond Mozart and Beethoven towards Mahler and Scherchen’s beloved Schoenberg.

Many of our conventional assumptions are consequently overturned. We think of No.45 (Farewell) as being one of Haydn’s practical jokes, though Scherchen turns it into something closer to nightmare. The opening movement is alarming in its ferocity, while the minuet’s dark, plunging lines bristle with uncertainty. In the famous finale, during which the musicians are meant to leave the platform one by one, Scherchen asks his players to whisper “Auf wiedersehen” when they cease playing. This is also the only stereo recording in the series, and their voices pass eerily from speaker to speaker as the music sinks into an uncomfortable void.

The ‘Farewell’ was the last of these recordings to be made, while No.100 (Military) was among the first. This is a justly famous performance, bringing with it the alarming realisation of closer links between Haydn and Mahler than some might expect. The clangour of Haydn’s alarums and excursions pre-empt the Mahlerian mixture of apocalypse and barrack room. The trumpet call before the climax of Haydn’s slow movement is terribly close to the opening flourish of Mahler’s Fifth. Haydn, whose work is sooften linked to the assertiveness of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, deploys a musical language similar to that of the composer who chronicled its decline.

Each symphony, meanwhile, is given a sharply individual emotional character. No. 44 (Mourning) is radically different from No.49 (La passione). The slow movement of the former is all broken backed angularity and futility. ‘La passione’ swings from public ritual to seething private rage and back, finding no resolution between the two. No.98, balancing severity with deep spiritual solace, inhabits territory one could describe as ‘religious’. No.95 often seems as turbulent as anything by Beethoven or Wagner.

The emotional level of these performances is often draining. Some, however, might be more worried by certain technical aspects of Scherchen’s conducting, most notably his fondness for extremely slow speeds. The Largo of No.88 comes in at a notorious, gargantuan ten minutes, as time itself seems almost frozen in suspension. Some will doubtless hate it. All I could do was marvel at the control and shape he brings to the movement even at this speed.

There is, however, one flaw. These may be great interpretations, but they are not necessarily greatly played. The earlier recordings were made with the Vienna Symphony. From 1951, Scherchen’s recording orchestra was billed as The Vienna State Opera Orchestra, though its member were largely drawn from the Vienna Volksoper, the city’s second opera house, largely devoted, at the time, to performances of operetta. The Vienna Symphony is throughout the more balanced, cogent ensemble, rising to truly great heights in No.95, which is the finest performance of the work I know. The Opera Orchestra, particularly in its earlier recordings, is occasionally hampered by thin string tone and, more frequently, by tentative or uncertain woodwind and brass.All the recordings were made well before the era of ‘period bands’ (though later in life Scherchen did experiment with ‘authentic’ practice in his performances of Handel’s Messiah by attempting a reconstruction of the Dublin premiere).

This set is consequently not for those who prefer their Haydn on original instruments. Despite the variable playing, however, thisremains a formidable experience. The mark of a truly great interpretation lies in the fact that it forces you to re-think both composer and work from scratch – and every performance in this remarkable set does just that.

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