Rattle is not new to the music of Haydn, having recorded Symphonies Nos. 22, 60, 70, 86, 90, and 102 with the City of Birmingham Symphony, and also on EMI. Here he repeats No. 90, and gives us a superb set of the “transition” symphonies between the “Paris” and “London” sets. Haydn, flush from his success in Paris was anxious to keep the process going, and turned out these works also intended for the Parisian audience, and possessing all of the sparkle, wit, and extraordinary intelligence, not to mention sheer brilliance of inspiration of the “Paris” symphonies.
About a year after the completion of No. 92, the “Oxford” symphony, Haydn’s patron, Nikolaus Esterhazy, died. His successor had little taste for music, but what seemed as an initial financial problem turned into the single most lucrative career move Haydn had yet made—his trip, under the auspices of the promoter Salomon, to England in 1791-92. Here he also composed, in addition to the famous twelve, a Concertante for two strings and wind instruments partly to compete with his rival Ignaz Pleyel. Haydn outdid himself and Pleyel, and his Sinfonie Concertante was to become as popular in London as any of his symphonies, with creative writing for both sets of instruments, gorgeous melodies, and unforgettable effects.
I seem to be on the other side of the general Rattle consensus. When his Beethoven symphonies were released, to decidedly mixed critical reaction, I thought them superb, one of the best such sets on the market (I still do). Most of the popular press wants to pigeonhole Rattle as the modernist and romantic wunderkind who finally makes up for Britain’s lack of Thomas Beecham by ascending the mighty Berlin Phil. So far, with some exceptions, I seem to prefer him in the classics. Rattle the classicist. What a surprise! But make no mistake, these Haydn readings are of the highest order, on a par with my favorites and greats of the past – starting with Bernstein, Beecham, and the Davis readings on Philips. I would love to have the complete symphonies done by him with the Berlin, but of course that will never happen. But it would be criminal if EMI doesn’t at least let him tackle the “Paris” and “London” works.
The sound is quite nice, a little tubby in the bass, but the Berlin players make such a rich sound that I really don’t care. A reviewer on another website actually stated that he didn’t think the players were all that familiar with this music, and wasn’t sure that Karajan did any Haydn with them. Well, sir, only all of the “Paris” and “London” symphonies, to critical acclaim! Actually, they play this music as well as anyone ever has. There is some shred of period influence in these recordings (and they are different from Karajan’s bolder, but equally affecting interpretations), but the orchestra does use vibrato and seems to be of a decent size, though recording techniques these days makes it impossible to know for sure. They were done live at the Philharmonie, but EMI seems to have risen above the known limitations of that location. The minuets are on the fast side, a trendy sort of practice, but Rattle still manages to infuse in them a great deal of spirit and authentic landler qualities. Repeats are taken, and in No. 90 we get two versions, one with audience reaction to the big joke of false endings in the last movement, and one without it. This is a bit of a conceit to include this, as the rest of the set is sans applause or any noticeable sounds from the onlookers. I love this set, and as a confirmed Haydn-nut I am sure it will get lots of play. Don’t hesitate, even if you have gobs of Haydn already at home. We do want EMI to continue with this, and sales are the only way it will happen!
— Steven Ritter