on October 14, 2009
With this review, I am taking the liberty of critiquing releases of three complete performances of the Haydn Symphonies:
To undertake a completely recorded set of Haydn's Complete Symphonies is a monumental and ambitious project. To complete it is a monumental accomplishment of having recorded a considerable body of work written by the "father of the symphony," which in itself must provide great relief and satisfaction to all involved upon its completion. Dennis Russell Davies has but three predecessors here: First, the forerunning, pioneer analog set with Antal Dorati conducting the Philharmonia Hungarica and then Adam Fischer digitally recorded the set with the Austro Hungarian Haydn Orchestra in the late 1980s through the early 1990s, first on the Nimbus label, then it was released as a set of its own on Brilliant Classics, then repackaged earlier this year as part of the commemorative Brilliant Classics Haydn Edition (which in spite of its sprawling 150 CDS is not yet "Complete."). And there is a Naxos set which has been released in its separate parts for some time, but has found a recent reissue in a complete boxed set for 2009 for about one hundred dollars, which is not reviewed here.
The Dorati set, which after all of these years, I still regard as the gold standard for these performances, is now recently released in its latest budget priced form commemorating the bicentennial of Haydn's death. The orchestra concerned, the Philharmonia Hungarica, was composed of émigrés from the abortive and Soviet suppressed 1956 Hungarian revolt. It is now available in its current version as a cardboard sleeved box of thirty three disks, now acquirable for literally a song, a little more than for sixty dollars. The set has had transformations in several incarnations itself: On London Records originally, when these were originally released on forty eight phonograph records in the mid 1970s. These were released in the late 1980s in a set of thirty two compact disks at high mid price in jewel boxed subsets of four to a jewel box. I bought this set in this first CD incarnation at a cost of some ten dollars per disk. Another release in the 1990s took it out of its jewel cases and put it in paper sleeves, which by no means detracted from the recordings and lowered their cost into the lower two hundred dollar range. In its current version, it is indispensable for any serious collector of Haydn's music. This set is only the beginning. And if one is to be the proud owner of only one cycle of Haydn's One Hundred Four, plus three. This is the one set to get if you can afford only one.
The Sony Dennis Russell Davies set, priced at seventy five dollars, recorded in the Daimler Benz concert hall in Stuttgart, arrived from Amazon in an "environmentally correct" box and packaging, no plastic jewel boxes, cardboard sleeves, divided into a half dozen color coded groups or subsets within the set: The Early Symphonies, The First Symphonies Written for Prince Esterhazy, The Storm and Stress Works, Symphonies for Entertainment Purposes, Symphonies for the Public at Large (which includes the "Paris" Symphonies and those after it before the "London" set), and the London Symphonies.
The set of what is now, the complete one hundred four, plus Sinfonia Concertante and Symphonies "A" and "B" (on the Dorati and Fischer sets) added as "Symphonies 105, 107, and 108, is a compilation of live recordings spanning some twelve years of recording of live performances on thirty seven compact disks, four disks more than both of Dennis Russell Davies`s predecessors, Antal Dorati and Adam Fischer. The applause from the live performances has been added to and included with all of the symphonies, and this might account for the necessity of the spreading out the project onto four additional compact disks. Arguably, it might be well worth it, but I find the interruptive applause intrusive.
The program booklet lists the one hundred four in Dennis Russell Davies's/Sony's recorded order, but timings of the individual symphony movements are missing in the booklet, and rather, we have the total recording time for each of the symphonies on the cardboard sleeve.
Unlike Dennis Russell Davies's earlier predecessors, who boxed their recordings in sequence according to the Eusebius Mandyczewski`s-Anthony von Hoboken's compilation 1-104, these are presented to the purchaser in order of completion rather than by order of publication, which appears on the first superficial glance to be arranged in little order at all: For example, Disk One places No. 1 with 37, 18, and 2 in that order. Disk Two has No. 4, 27, 10, and 20. Further on down, it's Nos. 15, 3, 6, and 7. The notes in the Sony-Dennis Russell Davies set give their detailed explanation for this. To listen to the symphonies in this order changes the experience to one which is new and to one with which one is unaccustomed, even for a familiar listener, for better or worse. It is my understanding that the Naxos set has not released the symphonies in their numbered order as well.
Technically, the Dennis Russell Davies performances are sonically flawless without a glitch, and they are taken at tempi somewhere sanely halfway in between the Dorati to which I have long since grown accustomed, and the raced renditions of some of the Fischer as is the case in Haydn's slow movements such as in the opening No. 22, or in the No. 26 Adagio. So I would give the Sony/Dennis Russell Davies and Stuttgart the five stars here. There is a lengthy section within the program booklet which gives individual credit to the individual performers in the ensemble, and the orchestral sound is not overpowering, more chamber like, which inclines me to thing that these are period instrument performances. Unless one objects to that, and would rather be acoustically overwhelmed and overpowered by a Bernstein or a von Karajan, I would recommend the purchase. In all fairness, the Dorati "London" group of symphonies seems to have grown leanly orchestrated in its own right over time. A plus for the Fischer recordings is the intimacy and presence of the virtuosi, the solo instrumentalists of No. 6 ("Morning"), No. 7 ("Noon"), and No. 8 ("Evening").
If one is allowed to have but one set of Haydn, I would stick with Dorati's renditions, as it is and has been the gold standard by which I have judged the others as well as the newcomers. If you possibly can do it, for a little over two hundred dollars you can have all three cycles. I would strongly urge their acquisition for any Haydn fan. Dennis Russell Davies' set is arguably in a dead heat with or even surpasses what are some of Fischer's raced tempi and accelerated accounts for a second place finish, which is not so bad of a consolation for there being only three complete recordings of the essential acquisition for any serious classical music collector.