HAYDN: Symphony No. 104 in D Major, “London”; Symphony No. 88 in G Major; Symphony No. 101 in D Major, “Clock” – Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra/ Nicholas McGegan – Philharmonia Baroque Productions BPB-02 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 75:16 ****1/2:
This is the second of three recordings with which the esteemed Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra launches its own label. It’s a trend among American orchestras that is both laudable and inevitable as the big record companies bail out of the classical market. Some of the home-grown labels, such as the San Francisco Symphony’s, have been praised as a great improvement over the product that a major (RCA) formerly supplied. The Philharmonia Baroque was well served in the past by Harmonia mundi USA, but on the evidence of this Haydn disc, the orchestra should do very well serving its own interests through a proprietary label.
Recently, I reviewed the launch of a London Symphonies series by Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. I thought the results were a cut above but noted that this was small-band Haydn with a vengeance; Koopman uses just seventeen players in music that Haydn must have premiered using many more, given the resources available to him in London. No such going against the grain here: the Philharmonia Baroque musters around fifty players for their performances, and the sound, while predictably beefier, is equally transparent, with winds, brass, and drums holding their own against the substantial (around thirty-five players) string body.
But of course numbers don’t tell the whole story about any performance. Nicholas McGegan’s knowledge and experience, the orchestra’s commitment, and the added adrenalin of performing before an appreciative audience add up to an exciting performance of the Symphony No. 104, a piece about which I’ve become kind of jaded over the years. I think there are greater Haydn symphonies—the three that preceded it are candidates in my book, Symphony No. 103 the greatest of all—but McGegan’s performance manages to get me excited about the symphony again. The slow, minor-key introduction doesn’t sound like a merely perfunctory, backward-looking gesture here but a logical preparation for a movement whose character is prevailingly serious, imposing, with none of the typical Haydn wit on display. That comes in the Menuetto third movement, featuring strange full stops before a trilling reentry of the orchestra, as if Haydn is emphasizing the Rococo frothiness of the minuet at the same time he’s breaking its conventions. McGegan and the orchestra get and convey Haydn’s quiet little joke perfectly.
The performers are perfectly attuned to the emotions on display in the remaining movements, including the mostly serene slow movement, with its loud and stormy minor- key episodes, and the celebratory finale based on a hummable Croatian folk melody. Maybe it’s just in hindsight that there seem to be valedictory gestures in this movement, but McGegan and company seem to capture an appropriate air of nostalgic reflection here.
In Symphony 88, Haydn overturned expectations as he so often does in his later works. Though the piece calls for trumpets and drums, they remain silent through the first movement, which is thus light, almost maidenly despite its serious sonata-allegro trappings. Surprisingly, trumpets and drums make their first appearance in the slow movement, and the emphatic playing of the Philharmonia underscores the amusing novelty. This symphony has always been an audience favorite and has received more recordings than just about any Haydn symphony except for the most famous London Symphonies. My favorite performance heretofore has been by Frans Brüggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century on Philips. Since I find McGegan’s performance fully Brüggen’s equal, I guess I now have two favorite recordings of the work.
McGegan’s “Clock” Symphony has most of the virtues of the other performances on this disc, including an infectiously lively first movement and minuet. The second movement Andante is taken at a almost an allegretto, with the result that this Clock runs just a little fast for my taste, giving the movement a slightly perfunctory feel. Strangely, it’s a slower-than-usual approach to the Vivace finale that makes this movement less than ideal. Haydn’s double fugue ends up sounding a trifle pedantic rather than dashing. So for me, even though this is mostly a very fine Symphony 101, it’s just not the equal of the other performances on the disc.
No hesitations over the live recording engineered by David v. R. Bowles, a former member of the orchestra, who brings a tutored ear to the task. The powerful, close-in recording comes from a church whose ambiance imparts a slight but welcome sense of warmth. If the other two releases are as stimulating as this one, Phiharmonia Baroque Productions will have had an auspicious debut.
Live premiere recording of Bruckner’s 1881-1884 Urtext Edition, 7th Symphony