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- London Symphonies 93-104.
London Festival Orchestra/Ross Pople.
Arte Nova Classics 74321 72109 2 (4 CDs)

Any new set of Haydn's London Symphonies has to compete in the listener's affections with such tried and tested versions as those by Antal Dorati (irreplaceable on Decca), Colin Davis (charming but profound on Phillips), Eugen Jochum (witty and urbane) on DG and Beecham (inimitable) on EMI. Sadly, Ross Pople and the London Festival Orchestra cannot really survive in such illustrious company. They certainly bring some slim and lithe authentic-sounding textures to bear on the music (the picture of the orchestra in the CD booklet shows 12 string players and sometimes in the performances it sounds as if the string section was even less well-endowed. Tempi are generally very quick in the first three movements of the symphonies (especially in the slow movements, some of which fly past without leaving much impression, though the Minuet of the "Drum Roll" is unaccountably heavy-footed) and steadier in the Finales.

What I find lacking throughout this set is a spark of vitality and much evidence of the composer's unique wit and charm. Haydn was one of the most original of creators, bursting with invention though you might not think so from these occasionally rather dull readings. The "surprise" from the symphony of that name is less than arresting, the "military" effects do not make their mark (as they do in Dorati's version, for example) and there are no Beechamesque touches such as the whooping first violins at the start of the Recapitulation of Symphony no 102 (just a dry tick here). The first movement development section of no 102, one of the most explosive passages in Haydn's entire output, is a very lack-lustre affair - Haydn expert H C Robbins Landon spoke of the timpani roll leading to the recapitulation as being "hair-raising" but there is little to lift the follicles in the LFO timpanist's dry rattle.

The performers are not helped by a very distant recording. Details in the scores constantly fail to make an impression the sound is so lacking in immediacy. On the whole nos 95 and 98, the symphonies which one encounters most rarely in the concert hall, go best, no 95 in particular benefiting from very swift tempi and sharp articulation (let down again by the recessed recording). For the rest I remained as uninvolved as the players seemed to be. I hope other listeners will respond more readily to the minimalist approach to these great symphonies than I did. I cannot help but feel that by stripping the works down to their bare bones and presenting them so plainly, most of their wit, invention and originality has been pared away into the bargain.


Paul Conway


Paul Conway

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