HAYDN: 107 Symphonies (complete) – Christopher Hogwood; OCTAVO PANTONE – cond. by Frans Brüggen – Decca (34 CD set)

HAYDN: 107 Symphonies (complete) – Christopher Hogwood (Artist, cond.), OCTAVO PANTONE (Comp. & cond.): Frans Brüggen (Artist, cond.), The Academy Of Ancient Music Chamber Ens, (Orch.), Salomon Quartet/ The Academy of Ancient Music /Accademia Bizantina – Decca 478 9604, (34-CD set) About 1.5 days [5/13/16] ****¾:

The discs should have imprints of chocolate chip cookies on them. Once you finish one, it’s hard not to indulge in the next one.

How many times have you encountered a set like this for sale: The complete symphonies of Franz Josef Haydn, performed on original instruments?  Never.

That’s right, according to the packaging, this set contains the “first complete cycle on period instruments.” That horn you may have heard in a conventional recording of Haydn’s Symphony No. 5. In Christopher Hogwood’s recording, as a “natural horn,” it now has a charming antique sound to it (particularly when played presto). If you’ve heard Leonard Bernstein’s 1991 recording of the Paris Symphonies, you know they have a commanding, concert hall presence, fit for the 2,738 seat auditorium of Lincoln Center. Under the baton of Frans Brüggen, they have a more intimate feel, less booming and muscular perhaps, but more subtle.

Yet there are other reasons why I believe this is one of the more notable boxed sets I’ve heard in a while. It surpasses Bernstein’s Mahler symphonies, Norrington’s complete Beethoven symphonies, Sir Neville Marriner’s complete Mozart symphonies, even The Angeles String Quartet’s complete Haydn quartets. Of course, the Hänssler Edition of the complete Bach works far exceeds it (but that’s not really playing fair).

I mention the last one because the producers of Haydn 107 Symphonies may have learned from that 17-year-old set. Perhaps they learned to vary the performers. For example, through impeccable research, they concluded that Brüggen’s performances of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang symphonies (which they believe are 19 symphonies penned between 1766-69) are the most suitable, so they chose those. Probably a wise decision. The early symphonies live in Hogwood’s realm so he dresses them up appropriately, decked out in a trim scintillating fashion. And, for some reason, they added a third composer, Ottavio Dantone, to do Symphonies 78-81. He performs adequately but does not dazzle, and dips a little too deeply into the proto-Romantic well.

Decca clearly aimed the set at aficionados and so provided discs with alternate readings. Both Brüggen and Hogwood do the Miracle (No. 96), the Military (No. 100), and the London (No. 104), so you can compare their approaches. For example, in the Military, Brüggen gives the first movement time to breathe and uses less sharp sforzandos. Hogwood is typically brisker and crisper with his interpretation. His music is cosmopolitan, performed for a large city like Vienna in mind.  Brüggen steers straight for the provincial capital, where the roads can be less predictable, such as when he navigates the concluding percussion in IV. Another tasty item is the disc with the Surprise (No. 94), the Military (No. 100), and the London (No. 104), performed by the The Academy Of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble and the Salomon Quartet. How well do they perform these pieces?  Vividly. Of course, a flute & strings timbre takes a bit of getting used to for these works – percussion is problematic; listen for their solutions – but once you get into them, you appreciate their tidy creativity. Even the key moment in the Surprise Symphony is so well modulated that you actually are surprised.

But, the skeptics among you ask, “Didn’t Haydn write 104 symphonies?” Good question. This completist set also includes the very early Symphonies A & B, previously thought to be a string quartet and a partita respectively. Also, the Symphony No. 54 has two versions. They’ve got you covered.

If you haven’t been that keen on period-instrument music, give this set a try. For the most part, the performances are so tasty the discs should have imprints of chocolate chip cookies on them. Once you finish one, it’s hard not to put the next one on. And at less than $1.50 a disc, what have you to lose?

—Peter Bates

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