Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 99-104 (CD review)

Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 85513-2 (2-disc set).

Time was, you couldn’t consider recordings of the late Haydn symphonies without mentioning Sir Thomas Beecham. The symphonies were among his treasures, and he spent a lifetime playing and perfecting them before recording them in stereo late in his career in 1959. The maestro’s experience showed, and for most of the late Fifties and Sixties, the Beecham records held sway.

By the late Sixties and mid Seventies, however, other conductors had come along to provide Beecham some competition, Otto Klemperer and Eugen Jochum in particular. Then came Colin Davis, Leonard Slatkin, Charles Mackerras, Sigiswald Kuijken, Roy Goodman, Christopher Hogwood, and others. But now that I’ve returned to these recordings, I see little reason to question their authority as some of the overall best of the lot.

Oh, there are individual favorites I still retain, like Klemperer in “The Clock” and Jochum in the “Military” Symphony, but as a set, these final six of Haydn’s twelve “London” Symphonies from Beecham are hard to beat. They got the nickname “London” Symphonies, of course, because Haydn wrote them while he was temporarily living in London. Four of the final six have descriptive nicknames that call them easily to mind: No. 100, the “Military” because of its march and the martial sound of its percussive instrumentation; No. 101, the “Clock” because of its second movement imitation of a clock’s second hand ticking; No. 103, the “Drum Roll” because of its...wait for it...drum roll; and No. 104, the “London” simply because it was the last symphony Haydn would write in London. Or anywhere, for that matter.

Beecham brings to the performances his usual joyous, cheerful mood plus a touch so light you can feel the music wafting out of the speakers, floating out the window, and into the breeze. Yet in the culminating “London” Symphony there is a nobility and grandeur to match Mozart’s “Jupiter.” The playing is felicitous throughout, the atmosphere always loving, always caring. Nothing about the performances seems anything but perfect. They simply remain head and shoulders above most of their rivals.

When I first heard Beecham’s Haydn symphonies on compact disc, unfortunately early in the CD era, I didn’t care much for the sound; they had not made a good transition to silver disc and sounded hard, edgy, and exceptionally noisy. It was one of my biggest disappointments not to have Beecham’s Haydn included in my then-new CD music collection. But a few years ago EMI remastered the symphonies, and in the present two-disc set they sound fine. There is still a touch of background noise if played loudly, but who plays Haydn that loudly? And the sound is still a tad thin in the bass. But a smoother net effect now graces the ear, warmer and less brittle. The midrange is perhaps not as transparent as it could be, but there is nothing, really, that should deter a listener from appreciating the performances to their fullest. A wonderful investment.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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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 over 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, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
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.

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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