Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 104, 88 & 101 (CD review)

Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Philharmonia Baroque PBP-02.

It's always good to welcome a new recording from Philharmonia Baroque, one of the world's leading period-instruments ensembles. This 2011 Haydn disc is the second release from Philharmonia Baroque Productions, now that they are producing their own recordings.

Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) visited England twice at the invitation of London impresario Johann Peter Salomon and Viotti's Opera Concerts, where he composed his final twelve symphonies, Nos. 93-104, two of which we get here, No. 101 in D Major, "The Clock," and No. 104 in D Major, "London." In addition, Philharmonia Baroque throw in No. 88 in G Major for good measure.

The program begins with No. 104 (1795), one of the composer's most popular works. It begins with a dark, heavy introduction that reminds one of music from Mozart's Don Giovanni. However, it soon enough gives way to a far more chipper tune, with Maestro Nicholas McGegan appearing at home in both moods. The conductor then takes the Andante at a leisurely yet stately pace, followed by the catchy syncopations of the Minuetto and the wonderfully spirited Finale.

Next, we get Symphony No. 88 (1787), two trumpets and timpani accompanying the second movement Largo in several surprising outbursts, an unusual arrangement in those days to say the least. Otherwise, this is a typically buoyant and melodic work, the Minuetto and Finale filled with verve and elan. As usual, McGegan judges every tempo and every contrast for utmost delight.

Finally, we have No. 101 (1794), subtitled "The Clock." Again Haydn prefaces the first-movement Adagio with a slow, somewhat somber introduction, soon followed by a sprightly Presto. The second-movement Andante gives the piece its title, the music ticking off the seconds in the manner of a clock. Here, McGegan perhaps takes the pace a little too quickly for the second hand of a timepiece, but it's certainly all in good cheer. The Minuetto and Vivace finale, more complex than they sound, come off as easily as everything else the Philharmonia Baroque play, which is to say with exquisite execution. You'd be hard pressed to find better, more fluid, more elegant, more stylish performances than these, especially on period instruments.

The Philharmonia Baroque recorded the symphonies between February, 2007, and September, 2009, live at First Congregational Church, Berkeley, CA. Well, I could have done without the "live" part, since I'm not a big fan of live recordings. Still, they miked this one closely enough that audience noises are seldom a factor. About the only serious drawback is the applause that erupts at the end of each symphony. Such recorded applause always reminds me of the laugh tracks in television sitcoms, unnecessary and annoying. In the future, I hope Philharmonia Baroque consider editing out the applause if they continue to release live recordings. Better yet, maybe they'll go back to making recordings without the distractions of an audience.

Anyway, the sound here is quite good, if not quite so smooth or natural as in their older Harmonia Mundi recordings. The church acoustic comes up well, providing a pleasant ambient glow to the music. While bass and treble might have been a tad better extended, the midrange is very clear, only a touch forward at times in the upper regions. There is also a very wide stereo spread involved, with a realistic orchestral depth, so the result is comfortable and rewarding.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa