I doubt that too many readers have collected all one hundred and four of Haydn's symphonies, or are even vaguely interested in doing so, but certainly the last eighteen, the "Paris" and "London" symphonies, plus assorted earlier pieces might be a part of a well-rounded classical music library. Prior to this 1999 set of "Paris" Symphonies from Frans Bruggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century, I had been living happily with Sigiswald Kuijken's period-instrument performances of them with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on Virgin Classics and with Antal Dorati's modern-instrument versions on Decca. Then, along came this newer set to give me pause.
Franz Bruggen's realizations for Philips are every bit as lively and grand as Kuijken's but offer two minor advantages. First, the sound is more immediate, closer to what Kuijken would do later in the "London" Symphonies for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. The Philips recordings, made live in Paris and the Netherlands, are slightly less vague than the Kuijken's renditions, with added definition and focus. It isn't enough of a difference to recommend a change if one already owns the Kuijken accounts, but for the first-time buyer it may matter. Second, the packaging of the two Bruggen discs uses a single slim-line case, thus occupying less shelf space the older, bulkier Kuijken edition. OK, not much of a consideration these days, to be sure, unless you find yourself with an expanding CD collection and fighting for every inch of space you can find.
More important, Bruggen's interpretations are first class, perhaps even first choices for those listeners interested in the period-instrument approach. The performances are energetic, stimulating, and engaging. And, of course, Bruggen takes them at a lively pace, as so many historically informed interpretations do. Expect a little less refinement than excitement.
Philips recorded the symphonies live at the Cite de la Musique, Paris, and the Muziekcentrum Enschede and Vredenburg, Ultrecht, The Netherlands in November 1996. The sound is clean, if a tad close, full and well-bodied except in the mid bass where there appears a hint of thinness and only a touch of harshness at times. Generally, it sounds the way you would expect to hear a period-instruments band live, with the same degree of transparency you would find at a live event.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: