Let me begin by saying that nobody does Haydn better than Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Well, OK, nobody does music of the Baroque or Classical eras better than McGegan and the period-instrument band Philharmonia Baroque. I say this partly because I've been listening to the PBO in concert since their founding in the early 1980's. As a follower of this ensemble native to my San Francisco Bay Area, I've had the pleasure of hearing them in a number of different venues, including First Congregational Church in Berkeley where they made the present album. I know, therefore, that it's dreadfully partisan of me to say so, but I've never heard anybody do Baroque or Classical music better.
What's more, I can't think of any other period-instrument band that does Haydn better than Philharmonia Baroque. The thing is, though, that on this album they're doing some mid-symphony Haydn, Nos. 57, 67, and 68. They are symphonies even dedicated Haydn enthusiasts may have trouble identifying. Of course, McGegan and his players have already done a number of the later and better-known Haydn symphonies, so I guess it's good to hear them in the less-well-known stuff, too. (I say "I guess" because I still wish I could hear the ensemble playing the more-popular and, frankly, better Haydn repertoire.)
The thing about Haydn is that he produced a great deal of music, much of it during short periods of time. During the 1770's, when he wrote the three symphonies on this disc while working in the court of his patron, Prince Nikolaus Eszterhdzy, he averaged some three or four symphonies a year. If some of them began sounding a little alike, well, it's understandable. Nevertheless, the amazing thing about Haydn is not that some of his works sounded like some of his other works but that so much of it sounded fresh and original. Genius will out.
Anyway, McGegan and his players begin with Symphony No. 57 in D major, written in 1774 and scored for two horns, two oboes, and strings. The nice thing about McGegan's direction is that he never goes all crazy on us as some conductors of period-instrument groups do. McGegan's tempos always sound well judged, always resilient and flowing, energetic without being rushed or wearying. In No. 57 he presents some thoughtfully measured contrasts that keep the music vital and alive, the outer movements cheerful and the seemingly simple slow-movement variations delightful.
Finally, in this well-filled-out album (over seventy-eight minutes) we get the Symphony No. 68 in B-flat major, again written in 1779 and again scored for two bassoons, two oboes, two horns, and strings. It opens vigorously with a movement marked Vivace. However, McGegan doesn't treat it with any undue briskness. Instead, the music moves almost gently in a fluid yet outgoing pace, always alert, always stimulating. As he does with the other slow movements on the program, McGegan handles this one with grace and refinement, all the while maintaining a sweet lilt and buoyant cadence. The music goes out with a most-pleasing forcefulness that shows us Haydn had a wealth of ideas to supply, and Maestro McGegan is fully up to enriching them.
These are among the finest Haydn performances you'll find, and even if you are unfamiliar with the material, you'll probably enjoy them under McGegan's always charismatic guidance. And, also as always, the Philharmonia Baroque play with an exacting refinement beyond reproach.
David v.R. Bowles of Swineshead Productions produced, recorded, edited, and mastered the recording, so you know exactly who to blame if you don't like the sound. He recorded the album live at First Congregational Church, Berkeley, CA in February and October 2014. It's that "live" part that gets to me. I know some people love live recordings, but I'm not one of them. Except for maybe 2% of all the live recordings I've heard over these many years, I've seldom heard one that I didn't think would have sounded better recorded in a studio or without an audience. Fortunately, this is one of the better live recordings I've heard, almost making that 2% you could say. And, most fortunately, one of its merits is a lack of applause, which Mr. Bowles has thankfully edited out.
It's miked fairly close, as we might expect of a live recording, yet it still shows a good deal of air and space around the ensemble, as well as displaying a fine sense of depth and dimensionality. So expect maybe a fourth or fifth-row seat, with the orchestra well spread out ahead of us. Yet the sound remains fairly smooth, with no excessive brightness or forwardness in the midrange or treble, just a pleasant, natural clarity. Bass seems a tad light, though, and might have benefited from a modicum more warmth. The audience is remarkably silent, and there is little sense of their presence even during the quietest moments.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: