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See latest reviews of other albums..., November 2010

The five-conductor Vienna Philharmonic set is intended to provide an overview of the Haydn’s symphonic career on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his death in 1809. To an extent, it does that, but to a greater extent, it shows just how remarkable an ensemble the Vienna Philharmonic is. This orchestra is arguably—maybe not so arguably—the greatest in the world, and its pristine tonal purity and absolute precision of attack shine through no matter which conductor is at the helm. And yet, although the Vienna Philharmonic famously insists on playing only from its own parts, this is also a highly malleable orchestra, following a conductor’s ideas and whims with astuteness rather than mechanically. The result is that even ill-considered performances—and there are some here—sound wonderful despite being difficult to defend musically. This collection, all of it recorded live, not only spans decades of Haydn’s life but also covers decades of the orchestra’s, with symphonies recorded as early as 1972 (No. 22) and as recently as September of 2009 (No. 98). The most interesting performances turn out to be by the conductors not likely to be immediately associated with Haydn: Christoph von Dohnányi, Zubin Mehta and Pierre Boulez. Dohnányi’s No. 12, recorded in 1991, is wonderfully smooth, carefully balanced and elegant, the irregular-length themes in the second of its three movements handled with particular skill. Mehta’s No. 22 is warm and rich without sounding Romantic, and the balance and contrast between the French and English horns is handled with tremendous skill (and superb playing). And Boulez’s No. 104 is just wonderful, its rhythms exceptionally clean, its tempos sounding exactly right, its instrumental balance outstanding, and its sheer scale showing that this final Haydn symphony has a grandeur equal to that of the late symphonies of Mozart—and surpassing that of early Beethoven. Franz Welser-Möst’s contributions to this set are of unequal quality. No. 26 (recorded in 1998) is bland, with little of the depth that this symphony, called “Lamentatione,” can possess—despite the orchestra’s excellent playing. No. 98, though (which dates to September 2009) is very fine, showing that Welser-Möst grew as a conductor and Haydn interpreter in the decade between these performances. The later one unfolds naturally and bubbles along brightly—but its slow movement, thought to have been written by Haydn after he learned of Mozart’s death, contains barely controlled mourning that comes across far more effectively than anything in Welser-Möst’s “Lamentatione.” The real disappointments in this set are, surprisingly, Nos. 93 and 103, both led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and recorded in May 2009. Harnoncourt, an early champion of authentic performance practices, completely loses his way here, seeming determined to make Haydn say something new and decidedly non-Haydnesque. The most obvious example is the opening of No. 103, the “Drum Roll,” in which Harnoncourt turns the timpanist loose for an improvisation that sounds like a representation of Donner in Wagner’s Das Rheingold. What it does not sound like is Haydn—and when the timpani solo returns toward the end of the movement, its intrusiveness is even more apparent. Add capricious tempos and stops and starts that impede Haydn’s headlong rhythms, and you have performances that are simply in bad taste. It is hard to fathom what Harnoncourt tries to do here: the set includes a three-minute speech he gave at the concert where these works were recorded, in which the conductor shows himself to be both knowledgeable and a fine raconteur. But his interpretations of these symphonies are simply misguided, and the orchestra’s excellent playing does nothing to conceal that. Still, Haydn’s music has survived far worse, and it seems certain that however much tastes in classical music may change, Haydn will remain one of its strongest foundations—and a thoroughly remarkable one.

James H. North
Fanfare, September 2010

To celebrate the 2009 Haydn year, the Vienna Philharmonic has picked seven performances given over a 39-year span. The symphonies appear in numerical order, beginning with Dohnányi’s November 10, 1991, rendering of the lovely Symphony No. 12 in E—which was about the 27th symphony Haydn wrote. Dennis Russell Davies’ performance in the recent Sony set of the complete Haydn symphonies is livelier and more colorful, but the VPO’s larger string section shines in the golden acoustic of Vienna’s Musikverein. Russell Davies’ very slow Adagio is sublime, Dohnányi’s merely pretty. It is one of Haydn’s most treasurable movements, belying the early number assigned to the symphony by Hoboken. Dohnányi’s performance is thoroughly enjoyable, yet the comparison illustrates how marvelous many of the Russell Davies performances are. Mehta’s “Der Philosoph” goes back to January 16, 1972, also in the Musikverein..The two Prestos display the verve of the 35-year-old conductor...Welser-Möst’s “Lamentatione” (March 22, 1996) is quite similar to Russell Davies’ performance, and the VPO has a big advantage in those gorgeous acoustics.

Harnoncourt’s performances come from a May 10, 2009, concert in Vienna’s Konzerthaus, another fine hall but one that lacks the magic of the Musikverein. Symphony No. 93 is typical of this commanding if sometimes perverse conductor...he gets the Vienna Philharmonic to sound like a giant version of his Consentus Musicus—as he did with the Concertgebouw in his decades-old Teldec recording. But here he takes even greater liberties, often altering tempi from bar to bar and inserting some huge Luftpausen worthy of Mengelberg or Furtwängler in the Minuet and Trio. The results are exciting and unpredictable—we never know what is around the next corner...Before performing Symphony No. 103 on the second half of the same concert, Harnoncourt makes some remarks to the audience, which are included here (as is an English translation in the booklet). He gets laughs, mostly from his engaging personality, as the talk is serious and interesting: The concertmaster of the first London performance, Viotti, played the same Stradivarius that the Vienna concertmaster plays in this performance. And the slow movement contains a Gypsy dance from Galantha that was written down, was once kept by Brahms, and can be found today in a Viennese library. He then directs a stunning, invigorating performance. One might quibble about details: The timpani roll is once again played as a virtuoso cadenza rather than Haydn’s simple pp sostentuto; the Andante piu tosto Allegretto is fast and jaunty, its ff interruptions explosive. But it all works and is thrilling from start to finish. With all repeats, including the Minuet da capo, this “Drumroll” runs over 33 minutes. No complaints!

We travel to the Lucerne Festival on September 8, 2009, for Welser-Möst’s Symphony No. 98 in B. Ferociously fast tempos, superb playing, and another fine acoustic setting add up to an exhilarating opening Allegro...The famously lush VPO shows that it can be as crisp as any ensemble when the conductor demands it. The final Presto races along as it should, with spectacular playing... this is a performance that must be heard; the outer movements have never been so superbly played, so thrilling.

The notes tell us that Boulez thinks Haydn a greater composer than Mozart and “puts his words into practice by regularly performing Haydn’s music.” Yet this is the only Boulez Haydn recording listed on ArkivMusic, and I can’t offhand think of another. The “London” Symphony can be a slight comedown from the power and magnificence of its immediate predecessors, but Boulez and the VPO—in the Musikverein on March 24, 1996—deliver a potent reading, at consensus tempos yet superbly calculated and well balanced. The Minuet is easygoing, the Presto finale dynamic. There is little humor, but this symphony doesn’t need it.

The VPO reserves its best performances for “Viennese” composers, whether they came from Rohrau, Salzburg, Bonn, or Hamburg. (The local boys—Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky—have not fared as well in the Musikverein.) It’s as if the Viennese were guarding what they consider their heritage. This is the best Haydn I have heard from them, preferable to the efforts of Böhm and even Bernstein, whose Haydn was tighter in his New York days. The booklet includes bios of all the stars of this set: the conductors, the orchestra, and the Musikverein—which certainly deserve equal billing.

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, March 2010

Because we live in a world where orchestras put out their own discs, there’s something rather wonderful about this three-disc compendium of Haydn Symphonies. The “stars” are Haydn and the Vienna Philharmonic, not the conductors who are midwives, even when they’re as wildly different in approach and history as Boulez, Mehta and Harnoncourt. So what you have is Vienna’s great orchestra playing the composing “papa” of what people came to call “the first Viennese school” (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern being the second). Recordings date all the way from Mehta’s 1972 recording of the Symphony No. 22 “Der Philosph” to the “London” Symphony No. 98 recorded in May 2009. Timed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his death last year, the box excludes all the Paris symphonies as well as such tried and true favorites as the Symphony No. 94 “Surprise” and the G-major Symphony No. 88. It is, nevertheless, an inimitable contribution to the worldwide recorded commemoration.

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