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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
London Symphonies, Volume 1

Symphony No. 93 in D major (1791-2)
Symphony No. 94 in G major ‘Surprise’ (1791-2)
Symphony No. 95 in C minor (1791-2)
Symphony No. 96 in D major ‘Miracle’ (1791-2)
Symphony No. 97 in C major (1791-2)
Symphony No. 98 in B flat major (1791-2)
Rec. 1957-8, Salle Wagram Paris; No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London

London Symphonies, Volume 2

Symphony No. 99 in E flat major (1794-5)
Symphony No. 100 in G major ‘Military’ (1794-5)
Symphony No. 101 in D major ‘Clock’ (1794-5)
Symphony No. 102 in B flat major
Symphony No. 103 in E flat major ‘Drum Roll’ (1794-5)
Symphony No. 104 in D major ‘London’ (1794-5)
Rec. 1957-8, Salle Wagram, Paris; No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 5 85513 2 [77.08 + 78.23]

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 Channel.

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 flute.

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.

Terry Barfoot

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