Haydn’s twelve London
symphonies are among the glories of
the Classical period, and the pinnacle
of their composer’s achievement in orchestral
music. In this, the first of a pair
of two-CD sets, EMI have reissued Sir
Thomas Beecham’s celebrated recordings
from the late 1950s. In that sense it
seems reasonable to claim that these
performances lie at the culmination
and the summit of his glorious career.
The recordings are
now in their fifth decade, but thanks
to the advances in technology, including
digital remastering, they now sound
better than ever. And the price is more
appealing than ever, into the bargain.
Haydn composed the
London Symphonies in two groups of six,
for his visits during the seasons of
1791-2 and 1794-5. It is a fair measure
of his standing and fame that when news
of his availability leaked out, the
impresario Johann Salomon set out on
a month-long journey across Europe,
from London to Vienna, in order to secure
his services. To his great joy the 59
year old Haydn agreed to join him on
the return trip, during the course of
which he saw the sea for the first time
in his life, when he crossed the English
In London Haydn encountered
a glittering musical public and a talented
orchestra. He responded positively to
the challenges of both. And it is in
this light that it seems best to appreciate
Beecham’s famous performances. His love
of the music communicates in each of
the twelve symphonies, in detail as
well as on the larger scale. Above all
he is a genius of line and phrasing,
exuding a special warmth that the sound
has captured in the recordings themselves.
In other words, they do not sound their
age and there is no need to apologise
for them in any way.
The first six symphonies
were actually recorded in mono, but
the sound is full-toned and the perspectives
are both deep and clear. There is a
vivid sense of attack and drama, not
least in the way that fast music drives
forward with a real sense of momentum.
Take the first in the set, Symphony
No. 93 in D, as an example. The slow
introduction generates tensions which
then release a really vital Allegro
assai, which bounces along with vitality
of line and of texture too; for details
are never lost.
In his excellent notes,
the engaging James Harding explains
how Haydn achieved so fresh an approach
in these works. And the performances
bear this out, since Beecham loved the
spirit of Haydn and this was perhaps
more important than an authentic approach.
However, it needs to be stressed that
he was always true to the music. Therefore
the orchestra employed tends to be on
the larger side of the norm, and the
Breitkopf scores have been superseded
by more recent editions.
If anything, Beecham
does better still in the later London
Symphonies, the six composed for his
return visit during the 1794-5 season.
Take No. 101, ‘The Clock’ for example.
After a suitably atmospheric introduction,
the succeeding Allegro has abundant
vitality with plying of the utmost panache
that has just the right style for Haydn.
And what is more, the tempo for the
famous ‘Clock’ second movement is just
right, the bassoons setting a delightful
pulse and the violins providing a marvellously
pointed phrasing and due attention to
orchestral detail. Listen, for example,
to the subtle yet telling role of the
For all the general
qualities of the performances collected
in the set of recordings, the individuality
of each symphony is never in doubt.
The percussion in the ‘Military Symphony’
makes a compelling and strong impression,
for example, while the sheer majesty
of the impressive drum roll in Symphony
No. 103 is more than a mere effect.
And the final symphony, No. 104 in D
major, has the title ‘London’ which
surely ought to be accorded to each
individual piece. Be that as it may,
this is itself a suitably impressive
conclusion not only to these collected
masterpieces but also to Haydn’s distinguished
career as a composer of symphonies.
Any lover of Haydn’s
symphonies will know of these famous
performances and will want to have the
opportunity of hearing them or, better
still, acquiring them. There are other
performances in this crowded corner
of the catalogue which have their own
merits, to be sure, for example those
of Sir Colin Davis and George Szell,
to name but two. But Beecham remains
what he has been for nearly fifty years:
a special case.