HAYDN: London Symphonies Vol. 1 = Symphony No. 98 in B-flat Major; Symphony No. 97 in C Major – Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra/ Ton Koopman – Challenge Classics

by | Sep 29, 2010 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

HAYDN: London Symphonies, Vol. 1 = Symphony No. 98 in B-flat Major; Symphony No. 97 in C Major – Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra/ Ton Koopman – Challenge Classics CC72360 [Distr. by Allegro], 53:06 ***1/2:

Ton Koopman adds his own brief note to this first volume in yet another recording of the inexhaustibly inviting London Symphonies. He helpfully tells us why the Symphony No. 98 of 1792 has that curious little solo for keyboard in the finale and invites a bit of head scratching as well when he observes, “The visit Haydn made to London brought enormous musical changes. Suddenly, the composer heard music performed by what then was an exceptionally large orchestra.”

Though Haydn had composed his Paris Symphonies (1785-86) for an orchestra perhaps three times the size of the orchestra he directed at the Esterhazy Palace, the symphonies were “deliverables”; he didn’t actually attend the performances in Paris. So Koopman is right as far as it goes; Haydn was used to an orchestra of around twenty-five players. He worked with a private orchestra, after all. Great cities such as Paris and London could muster gargantuan orchestras in comparison. All that being said, and given Koopman’s own acknowledgement that the London orchestra which premiered Haydn’s symphonies must have been fairly substantial, the head scratching begins when we note, scanning the personnel roster supplied in the booklet, that Koopman’s Amsterdam orchestra is nineteen strong—or weak, as the numbers strike you.

Koopman may in future releases explain why he’s chosen to give the listening public small-band Haydn with a vengeance. I’d like to see his reasoning on this score. Till then, we have the performances on Volume 1 to evaluate on their own merits. Fortunately, Haydn’s music is durable, and Koopman is a musician with a large understanding of eighteenth-century performance practice. As I listened, I was not troubled by any deficiencies caused by a string section numbering a slim eleven members (just one doublebass!). Of course, I was instantly aware of the shift in balance toward the winds and drums. This is always evident in the best authentic-instrument performances, though obviously accentuated here.

The added piquancy is either a selling point or a deficit, depending on who’s listening. I’m sold to a large extent. The playing of Koopman’s orchestra is vibrant, engaged, and so together that the results seem to belie the numbers. A highly detailed, bass-rich recording certainly helps, but Koopman and his band are ultimately responsible for this mostly successful outing.

Which sets up my few reservations: The first movement of the Symphony 98 doesn’t really catch fire until the recapitulation. I find the development section especially unspecial: it’s correct, but plodding. I thought that if the first movement was a harbinger of things to come, I wasn’t going to like Koopman’s London Symphonies. Fortunately, the band seems to have quickly warmed to its assignment, and the remainder of the program is about as lively and engaging as you could wish.

And one more puzzling discrepancy: In his notes to the recording, Koopman tells us that Johann Salomon, the entrepreneur responsible for mounting Haydn’s London venture, pressed Haydn to supply a solo for himself. “Given his advanced age [Haydn was sixty years old at the time—any sexagenarians reading this who are p.o.’ed by Koopman’s observation?], (Koopman was born in 1944) Haydn was wary of playing a solo concerto. He solved the problem with his typical wit, writing at the end of the finale of Symphony No. 98 a brief solo in a slower tempo than the brilliant previous movement.” Naturally, contrarian that Koopman apparently is, the conductor-harpsichordist plays this passage faster than just about anybody else I’ve heard on disc. I haven’t perused the score, but given Koopman’s own observations, it makes sense that this passage should be presented in a tempo slower than the initial Presto.

OK, maybe I shouldn’t have read the accompanying booklet—or taken it so much to heart. I advise the same to you; take the notes to this recording with a liberal grain of salt, and you should be fine. There’s enough of merit here to commend this CD as a good start to Koopman’s London Symphony series.

-Lee Passarella

Related Reviews
Logo Pure Pleasure
Logo Crystal Records Sidebar 300 ms
Logo Jazz Detective Deep Digs Animated 01