Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 53, 64 & 96 (SACD review)

Carlos Kalmar, the Oregon Symphony. Pentatone PTC 5186 612.

First, the good news: The album provides three Haydn symphonies, one of them fairly well known and two lesser known; and the Oregon Symphony under the direction of its longtime Music Director, Carlos Kalmar perform them competently and professionally.

Now, the bad news. Pentatone chose to record the album live, albeit, thankfully, without applause.

Interestingly, the Oregon Symphony, one of the oldest ensembles in the United States, performed a Haydn symphony on their very first program in 1896. So, one could say they have Haydn in their blood. Certainly, they execute the present three symphonies with polish and poise. If you are a fan of Haydn, a fan of Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony, a fan of SACD recordings, or a fan in need of the particular works offered on the disc, you could do worse.

With 106 symphonies to his credit, Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) became known as the "Father of the Symphony." Here, we find three of those 106, two of them from his middle period and one from his later period. It's a good combination to show us his versatility.

Haydn wrote the Symphony No. 53 in D Major "The Imperial" in 1777, with at least four different versions of the final movement (only two of which Haydn probably wrote himself). The finale we hear by Kalmar is one reconstructed by Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins. The work was, in its day, among Haydn's most-popular and oft-performed symphonies, and one can see why. It projects a largely cheerful, if somewhat tempestuous feeling, and Maestro Kalmar and his forces provide a lively, lyrical, sunny performance.

The composer finished his Symphony No. 64 in A Major "Tempora Mutantur" by 1775, so it predates No. 53, but given the numbering system, who knows. Haydn gave it its nickname, "Times change," himself. The dating places both Nos. 53 and 64 at the end of the "Sturm and Drang" ("storm and drive," "storm and stress") period, so expect dramatic changes in temperament throughout. But it's the second-movement Largo that probably stands out for its sheer eccentricity. Yet Kalmar does not exaggerate any of the movement's oddities and keeps it moving at a gentle pace, alternating a light, sweet tone with a heavier, more serious one.

Carlos Kalmar
Haydn composed Symphony No. 96 in D Major "The Miracle" (1791) as a part of a set of symphonies he wrote during his first visit to London; thus, we think of it today as one his "London Symphonies." The work supposedly got its nickname when during its premiere a chandelier fell from the ceiling of the concert hall but hurt no one; however, while most of the story is undoubtedly true, it seems to have actually referred to a later symphony. Again, who knows. One can hear that No. 96 is a more complex, more mature work, and Maestro Kalmar continues to offer up a reasoned, expert interpretation in which one can hardly find fault.

The only question I would have with the album is exactly who might want or need it. I suggested in the beginning that fans of Haydn, Kalmar, the Oregon Symphony, or SACD recordings in general might enjoy the disc. But competition in Haydn is intense. Years ago Antal Dorati recorded all of the Haydn symphonies for Decca, and the company has made many of them available separately. What's more, for the sheer joy and delight of Haydn, it's still hard to beat Sir Thomas Beecham (EMI); for energy and fleetness, I enjoy Eugene Jochum (DG), although I believe he did mostly late Haydn; for ultimate grace and refinement, I like Otto Klemperer (EMI); and for a period-instrument approach, La Petite Bande (DHM) is hard to beat. Still and all, there continues room for one more, and Kalmar and his players provide good, solid, straightforward performances. For added pleasure, if you want your Haydn in multichannel, the Pentatone may be one of your few choices.

As with most Pentatone releases, the disc comes in an SACD jewel case, further enclosed in a light-cardboard slipcover. I wish the cover had something on it more elegant than a photo of the conductor, but I suppose we can't have everything.

Producers Job Maarse and Blanton Alspaugh, recording engineer John Newton, and mixing and mastering editor Mark Donahue made the album in 2013 and 2016 live at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, Oregon. They recorded and mixed it for hybrid SACD multichannel and two-channel playback via an SACD player and two-channel stereo via a regular CD player. I listened in the two-channel SACD mode.

There's no questioning the clarity and immediacy of the recording: It sounds close up and quite transparent. Some orchestral depth appears lost in the process, though. Nor is there much sense of the surrounding hall; that is, little ambiance. Nevertheless, multichannel playback may ameliorate this latter condition, I don't know. In any case, the sound is good enough: clear, clean, wide, and full ranging, with no hardness or undue brightness. It should satisfy even the most discerning listeners.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:


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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.

Contact Information

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