HAYDN: London Symphonies, vol. 1. Symphony No. 93
in D. Symphony No. 94 in G "Surprise." Symphony No. 95 in c. Symphony No. 96 in
D "Miracle." Symphony No. 97 in C. Symphony No. 98 in B-flat.
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham.
Pristine Audio PASC 328 MONO TT: 136:12 (2 CDs).
HAYDN: London Symphonies, vol. 2. Symphony No. 99 in E-flat. Symphony
No. 100 in G "Military." Symphony No. 101 in D "Clock." Symphony
No. 102 in B-flat. Symphony No. 103 in E-flat "Drum Roll." Symphony
No. 104 in D "London."
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham.
Pristine Audio PASC 329 STEREO TT: 155:13 (2 CDs).
THESE ARE AVAILABLE FROM PRISTINE
Serendipity. Some time after Wagner, audiences lost their ability to
listen to music of the Classical era. Hard to believe, but even Mozart
reduced to the status of a petit maître. When you accept Die
Tristan, or Tosca as the norm of passion, "Là ci darem la mano" seems
pretty lame. However, Mozart had his ardent champions, notably George
Bernard Shaw, who hoisted his considerable wit in the service of restoring
to more reasonable assessment.
Haydn's reputation, however, had sunk even lower than his pupil's. A
composer known in his day for his emotional force (one English writer
to Shakespeare) became huggable "Papa Haydn." This persisted
well into the 20th century. My mother, for example, had studied music seriously
during the Thirties and Forties, and I later got to read her textbooks,
which characterized Haydn as "historically important" -- ie,
not aesthetically important. It took the efforts of scholars like H.
Robbins Landon as well as committed conductors like Sir Thomas Beecham
Antal Doráti (the second to record all the symphonies; the first
cycle, by Ernst Märzendorfer, had very limited release) to eventually
push Haydn into standard repertory. Doráti began recording in
Companies have this weird (to me) idea that they need to re-record the
same material with new artists in order to make money. Of course new artists
need support, but do they really need to preserve their Beethoven's Pastorale?
Will it significantly better Mengelberg's or Szell's? Why push new product
with all the attendant costs of recording and editing when you already
have superior inventory? I just don't get it. What results is new audiences
ignorant of performance history -- the treasures and (I admit it) even
some trash of the past.
Like most conductors of his era, Beecham has become a collection of anecdotes
to the general classical public. I admit he left behind a superior collection
of anecdotes and bon mots, but more importantly, he bequeathed
a host of great performances. In many ways, he was bloody-minded, as
shown by his
notorious remark that "I would give the whole of Bach's Brandenburg
Concertos for Massenet's Manon, and would think I had vastly
profited by the exchange". He knew what he liked and stuck to it. Fortunately,
he liked the unfashionable as well as the fashionable. No one, not even
Barbirolli, has surpassed his Delius recordings. In the Thirties, he was
one of the few to record Haydn symphonies -- and not dutifully, either,
but with real brio. He had a special affinity for Handel and resurrected
many forgotten works by that composer. His was, I believe, the first "complete" Messiah,
although in a Modern, super-glam orchestration. Numbers that hadn't been
heard in decades appeared in an "Appendix." Haydn and Beecham
usually constituted an ideal match. Haydn's drollness and sentiment chimed
well with Beecham's personality. He, Szell, Doráti, and Bernstein
stand among my favorite Haydn conductors, although all four view Haydn
differently. Szell emphasizes Haydn's elegance, Doráti his warmth,
Bernstein his power, and Beecham his singing wit.
Haydn wrote six symphonies for each of his two visits to England. These
so-called "London" symphonies represent the height of his art,
without a dud in the dozen. They all follow the same general plan: sonata
movement; slow movement; minuet and trio; rondo-like finale, often sonata
rondo. Within those general specs, Haydn creates enormous variety, including
monothematic sonatas, innovative, poetic orchestration, and bursts of brilliant
counterpoint. Beecham does especially well in quicker movements, with a "natural" spontaneous
joy and rhythmic verve to his music-making. Haydn has always been known
for his musical jokes (the famous one in the "Surprise" Symphony
is only one of them, and by no means the best), and Beecham seems to
get them all. I especially like his second movement of No. 93, where
delicate texture rips apart with a loud fart from the bassoon, and Beecham
fully commits to it. In the slow movements, Beecham shapes a complex
singing line. At times, I find him a bit too slow; in one adagio, he
me to sleep. But I have trouble listening to slow movements anyway. I
need something, in the absence of lively rhythm, to keep my attention.
usually gives me an unusually interesting shaping of the musical line,
a bit like a great Lieder singer.
I highly recommend these discs, although I will mention a few points that
might give some listeners pause. First, he uses larger forces than we today
expect. No HIP here. Second, he uses pre-Landon editions, filled with mistakes
and editorial accruals that put down not what Haydn wrote, but what he
should have written. Beecham doesn't observe all repeats. Third, this set
appeared on the cusp of the stereo era. EMI, worried that stereo would
turn out to be a fad, got into the technology late. Hence, the first six
symphonies came out in mono and the second six in stereo. The difference
doesn't rattle me. Beecham's sheer musicality and the spectacular playing
of the Royal Phil's reeds and brasses (especially the trumpets) grandly
sweep aside such objections. The very greatest performances of Haydn's
symphonies are marked in large part by great solo wind players, which the
Phil obviously has. Textures are full but remain clear. Finally, unless
one knows the symphonies extremely well, I strongly doubt that Beecham's
departures from the true text will be noticed.
The bulk of Pristine's releases are mono. The label specializes in great
performances of the past and in applying the latest techniques to "wash
the face" of old vinyl. This involves much more than removing crackles
and pops. Here, producer Andrew Rose has digitally standardized the variations
in tape recording speeds, so that pitch changes between and within movements
don't jar. Apparently, he has also reduced the excessive brightness of
the EMI sound of the time. Most controversially, I think, he has submitted
the mono recordings to a process misleadingly called "Ambient Stereo." To
me, the controversy lies exclusively in the term "stereo," rather
than in the results. Based on various descriptions I Googled, unlike the
notorious "electronic stereo" of the Sixties, there's no attempt
to "locate" the instruments left and right. Something else
happens. Mono recordings tend to sound flat and compressed forward and
well as left and right. Ambient Stereo rounds out the sound, or as another
description has it, puts air around it. It's as if it restores the ambience
of the venue, so that the sound seems to originate in an actual room
rather than from a radio speaker. It's a very subtle effect. I don't
historical recordings because I'm so interested in history. I listen
to them because I enjoy great music-making. Consequently, I think Ambient
Stereo an enhancement, rather than an accretion. Pristine has decided
apply the process to its entire catalogue. More power to them.
S.G.S. (August 2012)