July 01, 2021


Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 93-104. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. SWR Music. $34.99 (4 CDs).

     Beautifully played, masterfully conducted, inartfully packaged and very peculiarly arranged on four CDs, the new SWR Music release of Haydn’s “London” symphonies is a mixture of delights and frustrations – in which, happily, the wonderful elements outweigh the irritating ones. These are not new recordings: they capture live performances from 2009. But they have lost not a whit of their charm and beauty in the last 12 years, and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR sounds as poised and finely balanced as it always did until it ceased to exist in 2016 (when it merged with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg). Roger Norrington, a longtime specialist in historical performance practice, conducts the symphonies with a sure hand, great sensitivity to individual instruments and to Haydn’s masterful juxtaposition of sections, and just the right level of attention to the composer’s rather puckish wit.

     Haydn’s music is full of surprises and unexpected turns of phrase. Admittedly, though, not all of them are clear to contemporary audiences, which cannot easily reset their ears to accommodate the expectations of Haydn’s time. Norrington knows how to accentuate elements of the scores to help today’s listeners appreciate what Haydn did. For example, the unexpected length of Haydn’s within-movement pauses – a major characteristic of his style – is played (or rather “silenced”!) beautifully here. And the frequent small-but-noteworthy bits of humor, such as the sudden bassoon exclamation in the Largo cantabile of Symphony No. 93, are, if anything, a bit overplayed, giving modern audiences just enough chance to wonder what they have just heard (Haydn’s original audiences would have picked up on the unusual elements much more quickly – and did, which is why he was so famous in his own time).

     Norrington’s and the orchestra’s excellence counterbalance some peculiar decisions made in the production and presentation of this set. The four discs are presented in individual sealed paper envelopes, a needless approach and an irritating one, since the sleeves’ glued flaps can easily be torn when trying to get to the CDs (especially if one is enthusiastic about what one is expecting to hear). More significantly, the layout of the symphonies is downright strange. Haydn created these dozen “London” works in two sets of six – the “six-pack” approach was common in music at the time, and Haydn had followed it with his six “Paris” symphonies, Nos. 82-87, and in many of his sets of string quartets. But instead of presenting the symphonies in numerical order, this recording separates the ones on each disc by the number four, for absolutely no discernible reason. That is, one disc contains Nos. 93, 97 and 101; the next, Nos. 94, 98 and 102; the third, Nos. 95, 99 and 103; and the fourth, Nos. 96, 100 and 104. The numbers of these symphonies happen to be accurate, and reflective of the way Haydn produced them, unlike arbitrary or uncertain numbers elsewhere in music of the time (when cataloguing his own works, Haydn was not quite sure which symphony was No. 1 – the first symphony he wrote may be the one now known as No. 37). So giving the “London” symphonies to listeners in this odd sequence is simply, well, odd.

     However, and it is an important “however,” Norrington’s stylistic acumen and his orchestra’s tremendous verve and stylish presentation make the recording well worth the trouble of repeatedly switching among discs if one wishes to hear the symphonies in their intended sequence. Of course, listeners who simply want to choose their favorites will have no problem doing so – and actually, any of these 12 works could certainly be anyone’s favorite. It is to Norrington’s credit that he appears to have studied each symphony as an independent whole, allowing each to establish its own mood; and he focuses with equal attentiveness on all 12, not only on the generally more-famous ones with names (No. 94, “Surprise”; No. 96, “Miracle”; No. 100, “Military”; No. 101, “Clock”; No. 103, “Drum Roll”; No. 104, “London”). The dramatic opening of the C minor No. 95, for example, is particularly well handled here, as is the intensity of the symphony’s third movement, which harks back to Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period. Furthermore, even in the best-known parts of the best-known symphonies, Norrington’s attention to detail is paramount: the Andante of No. 94, that being the movement mit dem Paukenschlag, is taken at a fast walking pace, and the exclamatory drumbeat is indeed a “wake up!” moment – but one that quickly passes as the movement continues on its jaunty way. And Norrington uses the timpani outburst in the symphony’s finale as, in effect, a recollection of the earlier surprise – a very nice touch indeed.

     Again and again, Norrington pays careful attention to what may be called Haydn’s “special effects” without overdoing or overplaying them: he puts them in context in a way that makes their out-of-the-ordinary nature clear but does not overstate their importance within Haydn’s extremely careful symphonic structure. This is as true with the delightful violin-and-continuo passage in the finale of No. 98 as it is with the use of “Turkish” percussion in No. 100. Furthermore, while allowing Haydn his position as the pinnacle of symphonic style in the pre-Romantic era, Norrington does not hesitate to bring out ways in which Haydn’s music, far from being hidebound, starts to look ahead to the not-too-distant future. Notably, Norrington again and again chooses Menuet tempos and rhythmic accentuation that render the movements quite undanceable and much more akin to scherzos than most conductors allow them to be. Beethoven is usually thought of as transforming minuet movements into scherzos, but Haydn himself used the term many times – for instance, in all six of his Op. 33 string quartets, four of which even place the movements second rather than third.

     For all the respect that Haydn now receives, for all the enjoyment his music now produces in an age so much later than his, he generally does not get sufficient credit as an innovator: he is thought of as perfecting and polishing forms, including those of the string quartet and symphony, rather than as being especially inventive with them. This is a gross misunderstanding and diminution of Haydn’s skills – and it underestimates the sophistication of the audiences, royal and otherwise, in Haydn’s time, whose respect and admiration for his works were founded largely on their exploratory and developmental elements. Norrington’s set of the “London” symphonies will not, by itself, show modern audiences just how exceptionally creative Haydn was, but it is a big step in that direction – as well as being, on the most basic level, a wonderfully engaging presentation of some thoroughly marvelous music.

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