Haydn: The Complete Symphonies. Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä conducted by Patrick Gallois; Northern Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Ward; Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmut Müller-Brühl; Toronto Chamber Orchestra conducted by Keith Mallon; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia and Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Béla Drahos; Capella Istropolitana conducted by Barry Wordsworth. Naxos. $149.99 (34 CDs).
There is so much right in the music and the performances in this massive set, and so much wrong in the presentation, that buyers need to think long and hard about whether they will find it a delight or an ongoing frustration after they add it to their collections. Unfortunately, it is likely to turn out to be both.
To say that this box of Haydn’s symphonies lacks a single conductor’s approach and focus is a vast understatement. There are seven orchestras and six conductors here, and no apparent rhyme or reason for the matching of a particular ensemble or conductor to any particular group of symphonies. On the other hand, all the orchestras are small in size and skilled in playing, and the now-pervasive understanding of performance practices of Haydn’s time means that every single version of a symphony here is idiomatic and nicely conceived – even without being played on period instruments. Furthermore, the use of a single orchestra and conductor for a Haydn cycle does not guarantee uniformity of approach: Adam Fischer’s fine 33-CD cycle with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra (available on Brilliant Classics) was recorded over a 14-year period, and interpretations on the earlier recordings differ significantly in style and emphasis from those made later; besides which, the makeup of the orchestra – and its performance practices – changed during those 14 years as well. (Fischer himself has said that by the end of the cycle he would have liked to go back and do the earlier part again, using what he had learned between start and finish.)
So if the use of multiple orchestras and conductors is not an inherent problem, what is? Well, the arrangement of Naxos’ CDs, for one thing: it is enormously frustrating, and shows clearly that there was no thought of creating a full cycle when the recordings were made (they date to as far back as 1988 and as recently as 2005). The sequencing of symphonies on these CDs is not so much irrational as nonexistent. Nos. 1-13 do show up in order. But after that, things are all over the place: Nos. 22, 29 and 60 on one disc; 25, 42 and 65 on another; 44, 88 and 104 on another; and so on. The final CD in this set ends up containing Nos. 97 and 98. For listeners who want to hear a particular symphony, this may be no big deal; but for ones who want to follow Haydn’s symphonic development (despite a few known inaccuracies in the numbering), this will be very off-putting. And to listen to a particular subset of symphonies can be genuinely irritating. Take the six “Paris” symphonies, for example: No. 82 is on CD 30, No. 83 on CD 32, No. 84 on CD 23, No. 85 on CD 33, and Nos. 86 and 87 on CD 20 – in reverse order. Of course, you can use a multi-CD player to program the works into the right order if you want to hear them in sequence, but rearranging these six symphonies’ 24 tracks is a chore that many listeners would likely prefer not to have to do.
The information on the symphonies in the accompanying book is also presented in an annoying way, since this set of Haydn’s complete symphonies is just one of four “complete Haydn” collections that Naxos is issuing. All four sets – symphonies, concertos, string quartets and piano sonatas – are discussed in a single book, which surely helps Naxos keep the price of the sets low (this company has a long history of offering excellent performances on reasonably priced CDs) but which also smacks of an unwanted marketing effort, designed to get purchasers of any “complete Haydn” set to buy the others.
This boxed set does have some bonus items that make it more attractive. The fact is that Haydn wrote symphonies or symphony-like works in addition to the accepted 104 that bear sequential numbers, and some of those rarely heard works are scattered among these CDs. The Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat, sometimes called Symphony No. 105, is on CD 4, and Symphonies Nos. 107 and 108 (also known as symphonies A and B) are on CD 22, along with a couple of bonus overtures (to La vera costanza and Lo speziale) – although there is nothing designated Symphony No. 106, and no explanation for the missing work (only one part of a symphony given that number has survived).
The balancing act involved in deciding whether to buy this Haydn set is not a simple one. On a strictly musical basis, the set is top-notch, with all the ensembles and conductors having a fine sense of Haydn’s style and all the orchestras being the right size for the music – and versed in playing it appropriately. But living with this set will require constant compromises, because of the near-random arrangement of the symphonies on the CDs, the lack of an organizing principle determining which conductor and orchestra are associated with which works, and the complete absence of a singular viewpoint on Haydn’s works and on his tremendous progress as a symphonist throughout his career. Haydn’s symphonies, as a whole, are among the cornerstones of classical music, and anyone who knows only a few of them will find hidden gems aplenty in this complete set. But searching for those jewels will likely prove annoying, and providing your own organization for a 34-CD box that does not already offer it may make ownership more of a chore than it should be, and less of a joy.