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In the world of music, there are two composers whose works surpass all others and represent the golden classical period: they are Mozart, a truly classical genius and Beethoven, equally as talented but who moved the classical genre forward in ways that were daring and unconventional for their time. The common denominator these two giants of the musical world share is a fellow composer, Haydn. Haydn may never have reached the dizzy heights of Mozart or Beethoven but his friendship with one and tuition of the other greatly influenced both composers and that influence can be detected in much of their work.
Who is Haydn?
Franz Joseph Haydn was born in Austria in 1732 and his musical career coincided with the end of the Baroque period and the beginning of the classical over which his work had a great deal of influence in establishing the strict musical forms that eighteenth century classical music followed. In fact, he was known throughout Europe by the affectionate nickname of 'Papa' Haydn, probably for his huge contribution to the classical music form as well as his enormous output of compositions. He was certainly prolific.
In his late twenties Haydn landed himself a dream job, that of Kapellmeister responsible for providing music for the court of Prince Esterhazy, which gave him the financial stability so lacking in many composers' lives. Although this job meant he was required to write set pieces to be played on special occasions, Prince Esterhazy also allowed Haydn the freedom to express himself musically and experiment with new ideas, though mainly within the confines of the musical forms of the day. His music doesn't have the mathematically precise beauty of Mozart nor the passionate drama of Beethoven and he certainly wasn't an envelope-pusher like the latter, who was his pupil for a while, but nevertheless Haydn composed music that was lyrical, dramatic and interesting without ever being controversial and he was one of the most important and respected composers of his time.
Why 'The London Symphonies'?
When Prince Esterhazy died, his son reduced the size of musical staff and although he retained Haydn's services, he allowed him to take extended leaves of absence and it was during these vacations that Haydn visited London at the request of a well known musician of the day, and where he began to compose the twelve symphonies given the collective title of The London Symphonies.
The twelve London symphonies were written between 1791 and 1795 and though influenced by Haydn's two visit to London, they weren't all composed there, some being finished off back in the Esterhazy Palace in Austria between visits. This Phillips double CD recording is of six of, arguably, the most popular of these twelve symphonies. Besides their official numbering all six were given nicknames which give a slight hint as to the content of the pieces.
Sir Colin Davis and the Concertgebouw Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis is a much respected British conductor who for many years was principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted several of their Proms seasons. In this recording he teams up with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra based in Amsterdam.
I have to say that Colin Davis is not one of my favourite conductors as I frequently find his musical interpretations rather safe and somehow more muted than I feel they should be and this recording doesn't make me change my mind.
The recording kicks off with Symphony no. 94 'Surprise'. Like all of Haydn's symphonies this takes the accepted symphonic form of the day comprising four movements: adagio, andante, menuetto and finale but unlike most other composers, Haydn liked to play musical jokes. The first movement is sweetly lyrical lulling the listener into something of a torpor and this continues into the early bars of the second movement, when suddenly out of nowhere the entire orchestra play one note fortissimo, breaking the spell and waking everyone up with a start. The gentle notes then resume as though nothing had happened. Sadly, as seems to happen when Colin Davis conducts, the 'surprise' is rather muted and so lacks the impact that I'm sure Haydn intended. The third (minuet) movement has a more polka-like tempo in places and this is followed by the final movement brings the piece to a lively and dramatic end with lots of soaring strings and brass and timpani brought in for emphasis.
The 'Military' Symphony, no. 100 begins with the usual slow movement and personally I can't detect anything military about it. The second movement, however, becomes more regimental in style and tempo with something of a marching rhythm to it which is continued into the third movement, and images of red coated soldiers spring to mind with a trumpet replicating a bugle sound adding to the military theme.
Symphony no. 101 derives its nickname of The 'Clock' Symphony from the second movement. The first movement is lively and cheerful with plenty of Haydn's trademark strings but with no hint of a clock anywhere. This is soon remedied in the second movement with the 'tick tock' rhythm being produced by a bassoon giving an excellent facsimile of a ticking clock. This metronomic beat has a pretty and lyrical tune playing in counterpoint. Haydn never makes the mistake of over egging his musical pudding by repeating these 'jokes' and the third and fourth movements lead to a simple and somewhat muted conclusion.
Colin Davis redeems himself somewhat with his interpretation of the 'Miracle' Symphony, no 96, which gets off to a cracking start. The conductor or maybe it's the orchestra manage to inject some drama into the first movement and this momentum is carried through the remaining three movements. Incidentally, although this symphony is known as the 'Miracle', the miracle referred to happened during the performance of another of Haydn's symphonies when a huge chandelier crashed into an area of the audience where people had been sitting moments previously. It was erroneously given to this symphony by his biographer but the nickname stuck.
The 'Drum Roll' Symphony, no 103, has a very dark and gloomy rather low key beginning without a drum to be heard. The second movement continues the slow and sombre tempo gradually building the drama only to return once more to the slow and muted with strings and woodwind and still no drums evident only a rather sweet and lyrical violin solo midway through. The full orchestra join in once more building the drama but sadly here the drum rolls after which the symphony derives its name seem to be completely overshadowed by the other instruments and can barely be heard. I've listened to other recordings where the full drama of the drum rolls is given much more emphasis. Despite this failing, the piece is full of passion and drama and there are some musical phrases which Beethoven must surely have learned from Haydn's tutelage because I've heard similar themes within his own symphonies.
The recording ends with my favourite, the 'London' Symphony, no. 104. I'm not sure whether the nickname means this piece is supposed to be a musical interpretation of London itself or whether it's so called because that's where it was written. This was Haydn's final symphony and a fitting coda to this series of symphonies. The first movement begins dramatically with four fully orchestrated notes before the strings play the theme, a muted and poignant phrase, answered once more by the full orchestra. This musical conversation continues to the end of the movement, gradually building the drama throughout. The drama is replaced in the second movement by strings playing the main musical theme which is then repeated through the movement but by different instruments and interpretations becoming a thing of lyrical beauty not sounding at all repetitious and with some fine dramatic interludes, too. The third movement takes the form of a country dance, all very bucolic but given added drama by the interplay of strings and orchestra and the odd drum roll (much more audible than in the 'Drum Roll' Symphony, I might add). The final movement begins quietly with another slightly folk dance sounding theme and as the full orchestra joins in, the piece becomes filled with a joyousness that gradually builds in passion and drama to a final crescendo of sound.
Although composers write the notes and offer instruction in the score as to how those notes should be played, the final interpretation of any piece of music comes down to the conductor and orchestra. I have no musical training, can't read a music score or play an instrument but to my amateur ears this recording just lacks a bit of oomph. I know Haydn wrote within the strictures of the musical forms of his day but he must surely have intended his music to be passionate and dramatic and in my opinion Colin Davis's interpretation rarely comes across that way and frequently sounds very flat and uninteresting. The overall sound is muted and almost musically one dimensional without any peaks and troughs of emotion but maybe this is how Haydn intended his music to sound. I'm a huge fan of Beethoven, a master of the dramatic and passionate, and I know that often Haydn was shocked by Beethoven's lack of musical discipline but I can't believe that any composer of worth would want their music to just wash over the listener rather than fire them with some kind of emotion other than polite interest.
I had an earlier recording of the London Symphonies on cassette, which is sadly lost and I can't remember who it was by, but it included musical phrasing, especially of the strings, which could almost make me weep with its beauty and passion and I never feel that much emotion when listening to this recording. I'm not saying it's awful, just that there are better interpretations out there. Most conductors seem to find an affinity with one or two composers and I know that Colin Davis is regarded as being one of the better interpreters of Berlioz and perhaps that's where his strength lies.
This is a pleasant collection of Haydn's symphonies and is very listenable but for me it definitely lacks that certain something which would set it apart from other recordings.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 1. Adagio - Vivace assai
2 2. Andante
3 3. Menuet (Allegro molto)
4 4. Finale (Allegro di molto)
5 1. Adagio - Allegro
6 2. Allegretto
7 3. Menuet (Moderato)
8 4. Finale ( Presto)
9 1. Adagio - Presto
10 2. Andante
11 3. Menuet (Allegretto) - Trio
12 4. Finale (Vivace)
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 1. Adagio - Allegro
2 2. Andante
3 3. Menuetto (Allegretto)
4 4. Finale (Vivace)
5 1. Adagio - Allegro con spirito
6 2. Andante piÃ¹ tosto allegretto
7 3. Menuet - Trio
8 4. Finale (Allegro con spirito)
9 1. Adagio - Allegro
10 2. Andante
11 3. Menuet (Allegro)
12 4. Finale (Spiritoso)