Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Haydn: The London Symphonies: Symphony #96, #103, #104

We return to papa Haydn for three more of his "London" Symphonies. We've already covered three symphonies (#94, #100 and #101), and with this post we'll finally finish off this two-CD collection of six symphonies from one of the most fruitful periods of Haydn's life.
Sir Colin Davis and the Concertgebouw Orchestra
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Haydn: 6 "London" Symphonies (Nos. 94, 100, 101, 96, 103 and 104)
Philips, 1977/2001

A couple of general comments first and then I'll get right into each individual symphony. First, the performance quality of the second disc in this two-CD set is noticeably poorer than the first; shockingly so, given the dearth of mistakes in disc one. There are flubbed notes, outright missed notes, a high-school caliber violin duet--and that's just my count from Symphony #96.

Please keep in mind, however, that these mistakes will go completely unnoticed by most listeners. Further, don't be dissuaded from buying this disc just because I talk about the mistakes that I hear, and don't think I hate the recording just because I cite mistakes. Remember, I'm the sorry combination of a classical music buff with OCD, which means I spend a lot of time listening for, and noticing, mistakes in every concert and classical music CD. So far, there hasn't been a single CD in this entire blog that I wouldn't recommend buying to anyone looking to learn more about classical music (with the possible exception of Shostakovich's Eleventh).

Furthermore, Haydn's music is completely approachable and listenable to the novice classical music listener, and his symphonies consist of easily digestible movements perfect for listeners more used to hearing their music in four-minute-long songs. You would get your classical music listening career off on an excellent footing by starting with this particular CD.

Listener Notes:
Symphony #96 "Miracle"
1) The first movement contains drama not always found in Hadyn's light, wink-of-the-eye symphonies. And it's exhilirating how the minor key introduction bursts in to a major key at the 1:33 mark of the first movement.

Note that symphonies of this era were much more structured than modern symphonies. There are always four movements, one of the middle movements is always a dance or a waltz in 3/4 time, themes need to be stated and reprised, etc. Yet despite this obligatory and fairly rigid structure, it didn't stop gifted composers like Haydn (and Mozart too for that matter) from creating an extremely large body of work with nearly infinite variety.

3) In the first movement, there's a run played by the oboe (twice) where he makes a mistake (1:45 and 1:49). It sounds like he wasn't paying attention to the key signature as he misses one of the notes by a half-tone. Later the flute player plays the same run (again, twice), but with the correct note.

4) The principal flutist flubs a note at 4:06 in the first movement (I so wish I didn't hear these things!).

5) From 4:38-4:48 in the second movement, there is a violin duet that sounds like two high school hack violin players sawing away. Shocking to me how in a CD otherwise this good there could be a passage that awful.

Symphony #103 "Drum Roll"
1) The first two minutes of this symphony could easily have been written by Shostakovich in 1950. Can you believe Hadyn wrote that creepy introduction in the late 1700s? Once the intro is over (at about 2:45 into the first movement), we get back to a sound that's quite a bit more representative of Haydn's era. Haydn briefly reprises the tympani drum roll and the introductory theme at the 8:00 minute mark before finishing off the movement with a flourish.

2) Fortunately, an actual professional musician plays the violin solo in the second movement.

3) Even the waltz movement (the third), with its kitschy horn calls and various call-and-response parts, is highly unusual.

4) And in the fourth movement, there so much energy and so many different instrumental voices that it's hard to believe that this work is being peformed by a smallish chamber orchestra.

Symphony #104 "London"
This was Haydn's last "London" symphony, and for that matter, it was the last symphony he composed, ever. Classical music critics have called the twelve symphonies he wrote during his stay in this city the tremendous dozen and this majestic symphony is a fitting end to a massive body of work, rivaled in significance perhaps only by Mozart and Beethoven.

1) Can you imagine King George III striding forth to the trumpet calls at the very beginning of this symphony? I can.

2) I can again hear Sir Colin Davis softly humming and mumbling along with the orchestra at various points during the first movement. Why oh why did they put a microphone anywhere near him?

3) The second movement has more gravitas and seriousness than all of these other symphonies combined, doesn't it?

4) I really enjoyed the variety of folk melodies sprinkled throughout the final movement. Again, this is highly original, given the rigid structure expected of symphonic compositions during this era.

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