July 22, 2010


Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 93-104. Les Musiciens de Louvre-Grenoble conducted by Marc Minkowski. Naïve. $41.99 (4 CDs).

     Haydn’s 12 “London” symphonies remain his most popular – some of them do, anyway – and there is no shortage of recordings either of individual ones or of the entire set. This fact seems be what inspired Marc Minkowski, an unusually creative if occasionally self-indulgent conductor, when leading his new four-CD set, which is made up of live recordings from the Wiener Konzerthaus. Minkowski bows, diffidently, to the original-performance and original-instrument styles of playing Haydn, but discards both; he also bows, rather less diffidently, to the style of personal interpretation that held sway before it became fashionable to play Haydn’s music, to the extent possible, in the way his original audiences heard it. The result is a sometimes wonderful and sometimes quirky and even bizarre set of the symphonies, and one without any particular unifying theme or approach except that this is the way Minkowski wanted them to sound during a series of performances in June 2009 in Vienna.

     If there is one characteristic that pervades most movements of most of the symphonies, it is speed, especially in the minuets, which Minkowski frequently takes at the pace of a scherzo, and a fast scherzo at that. And if there is a second, it is strong emphasis on brass and timpani whenever they appear – Minkowski goes for a big and bright sound almost all the time, even though his orchestra has only about 50 players.

     There is something attention-getting in every symphony in the set. No. 93 gets an exceptionally fast finale. No. 94 gets a second-movement “Surprise” that is right out of the Hoffnung Music Festivals of 50 years ago: when it is time for the famous Paukenschlag, the orchestra delivers exactly – nothing. And that really is a surprise, although not the one Haydn intended (which is no longer a surprise to modern audiences). So Minkowski plays the lead-in to the “surprise” again, and this time the orchestra shouts instead of playing. Only on the third go-round does the music proceed as expected. But other parts of this symphony are not quite as expected, since the minuet is taken very quickly and its trio very slowly.

     No. 95, the only minor-key symphony among these 12, gets an unusually slow and weighty first movement – and, in this case, a slow and stately minuet. No. 96 features a second-movement Andante that is more a jog (and a rather quick one) than a walk, and a finale that is really speedy. No. 97 has an unusually straightforward opening movement but a second movement that proceeds, in part, at unusual speed – and a very fast finale as well. And the third movement of No. 98 is taken practically at a breakneck pace.

     No. 98 also showcases one of Minkowski’s many unusual decisions. This symphony’s finale features a brief and delightful harpsichord solo, allowing the continuo player to have one single moment in the spotlight. And yes, the solo appears here – but it is the only use of harpsichord in the entire cycle of 12 symphonies. Apparently Minkowski does not consider the instrument necessary or even desirable except in the single place where it has a short solo.

     Symphony No. 99 features a particularly attractive first movement – it is strong and witty – plus, as in several other of these readings, a fast minuet with a significantly slower trio. No. 100, the “Military,” starts slowly and ominously, and the whole first movement is played broadly, intensely and with depth. The second movement’s “military” instruments are so intense that they practically overwhelm the rest of the orchestra – the trumpet fanfare and following drum roll sound like proto-Mahler. But No. 101, the “Clock,” gets an unusually straightforward performance; even its minuet, although a bit on the fast side, is not as speedy as others in the set.

     No. 102 has a speedy, enthusiastic and rhythmically strong first movement, a well-paced second movement, but a third movement that is so fast that Minkowski seems in a hurry to get it over with (the finale is quick, too, but not overly so). No. 103 starts with a very long, intense and – really – vastly overdone drum roll, sounding like something out of the late 19th century rather than the late 18th. Minkowski does get points for consistency, for what they are worth: the thundering rolls, sounding like something produced by Donner in Das Rheingold, return the same way at the end of the movement. The rest of this performance is fine, but it is hard to stop thinking about the first-movement oddities. In contrast, and as a capstone to the entire CD set, No. 104 (“London”) is played in a straightforward but very attentive way, with fine emphasis on detail, excellent balance among instruments, considerable enthusiasm, and speedy but not over-rushed third and fourth movements – it is a highlight among all Minkowski’s readings.

     It is hard to be sure how many of the quirks of these performances result from carefully thought-through analysis of the symphonies and how many simply represent the way Minkowski felt like doing the “London” symphonies at the particular time this set was performed and recorded. The discs’ packaging only increases the mystery: the third and fourth CDs present Symphonies Nos. 99-104 in numerical order, but the first and second CDs use this sequence: 96, 95, 93, 94, 98, 97. It is true that the numbering of these symphonies does not reflect their order of composition, but neither does the order in which these CDs present them. So is the sequencing arbitrary, or is it reflective of some unexplained analysis or philosophy? A similar question can be asked of Minkowski’s performances themselves. They are exceptionally well played and offer many delightful touches and clever details. But are they a rethinking of Haydn, a personal statement by the conductor, a set of “let’s try this for a change” approaches, or what? There is plenty of enjoyment in this set, but no clear answer to that basic question.

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