Haydn: London Symphonies Nos. 99, 101, 100 (SACD review)

Bruno Weil, Cappella Coloniensis. Ars Produktion ARS 38 063 (2-disc set)

People usually know the Symphonies Nos. 93-104 by Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) as the “London” symphonies because Haydn composed them for two trips he took to the city. People occasionally call them the “Salomon” symphonies because the impresario Johann Peter Salomon introduced the composer to London. Haydn wrote the symphonies between 1791 and 1795, Nos. 93 through 98 during his first visit to London and Nos. 99 through 104 in Vienna and London for his second visit. On the hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD under review, Maestro Bruno Weil continues his Haydn “London” series, leading the historically informed ensemble Cappella Coloniensis in the first three of Haydn’s second group of “London” symphonies.

Maestro Weil begins the program with No. 99 in E-flat major, written in Vienna, 1793 and premiered in London the following year. The performance is a pretty good indication of what’s to come on the rest of the disc. As is customary with historical renditions, Weil’s reading features a period-instruments ensemble, which can sound a little different from one using modern instruments, the strings and percussion especially. It’s not that the strings or percussion sound harsh or strident or anything; it’s just that they don’t produce as smooth and plush a sound as modern instruments do.  We also get quick tempos, period bowing, occasionally unique phrasing, and emphatic dynamic contrasts. They add up to a performance that, like the others on the disc, many listeners will enjoy for its lively spirit, and other listeners may find fatiguing. Personally, I found the performance refreshing, but I’m not sure I’d want any of the interpretations on this album to replace some of my old favorites in this repertoire.

Next, Maestro Weil gives us Symphony No. 101 in D-major, commonly known as “The Clock” because of the ticking noise it produces in the second movement. In No. 101 the introduction appears more solemn than ever, even though Weil takes it at a pretty good clip. It reinforces the energetic rhythms of the Presto that follow, though. Then we come to the famous "clock" movement, which seems to tick off the seconds in double time. It takes away a little of the music's charm but replaces it with some delights of its own in that the energy is infectious.

Lastly, Weil conducts the Symphony No. 100 in G-major, nicknamed the “Military” symphony for its use of martial fanfares and percussion. After its premiere, a reviewer of the day wrote that the second movement produced the "hellish roar of war increasing to a climax of horrid sublimity!" Weil probably concludes the disc with this work because it is one of Haydn’s most-popular and most-exciting works, and because the conductor wanted the program to go out with a bang. Or more precisely, a crash, boom, bang. Besides, it’s uncertain in which order Haydn wrote Nos. 100 and 101, so it doesn’t matter much which one comes before the other on a program.

Anyway, in No. 100 Weil goes for broke, with the great outbursts of "Turkish" instruments--cymbals, triangles, drums--punctuating the music as you may never have heard them before. Meanwhile, the rest of the symphony bounces merrily along in a wonderfully vivid, outgoing fashion, making Weil's rendering of the material among the most invigorating you're likely to hear. As I say, not everyone will take to it, but Weil keeps the mood fairly elegant and refined regardless of the fast pace and sometimes clamorous eruptions.

In addition to the three symphonies on the SACD, Ars Produktion include a second disc, a CD, with Maestro Weil giving us explanations of the music. Here, in a little over half an hour, the conductor uses musical excerpts to illustrate various points to his audience about each of the symphonies, and he does so...in German. I kept looking and waiting for English translations, but, alas, I found the second disc rather a loss.

Producer Annette Schumacher and engineers Manfred Schumacher and Martin Rust recorded the music live at Alfried Krup Saal der Philharmonie Essen, Germany, in 2012-2013, and Ars Produktion mastered and transferred it in both two-channel stereo and multichannel to a hybrid SACD with a stereo layer playable on any ordinary CD player. I listened in the two-channel SACD format.

The sound is quite good, if rather close-up in the manner of most live recordings. Despite this closeness, though, there is a moderately sweet ambient bloom present that imparts a decent sense of realism to the event. Definition is also quite good, as is the dynamic impact and the dimensionality of the orchestra. If the booklet hadn't mentioned that the engineers had recorded the music live, I doubt I would have noticed, except between movements where one hears faint audience breathing and feet shuffling. Fortunately, too, the disc’s producers spared us any applause.

JJP

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

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

Mission Statement

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.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa