Comparison shopping for recordings of Haydn symphonies? Someone has already done much of the work for us. I can vouch for Scott Foglesong because he is Chair of the Department of Musicianship and Music Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Not only that, but he sure knows his Haydn. He has also been a member of the Classical Music SIG of Mensa (which I have coordinated for 2 decades) for over 15 years, so I am delighted to have him among our ranks. This article appears on his website, and he let me reprint it in our newsletter last year.
(He has also criticized many of my own compositions and given me invaluable advice, but still enjoys them, so apparently they have some redeeming qualities.)
! On Recordings
Don't assume that a period-instrument performance will be better or worse, ipso facto, than a "big band" performance. Musicianship (or lack thereof) is what really matters.
Haydn Symphony Recordings
The largest category in my recording collection is Haydn symphonies. Therefore I can speak with some insight about the virtues of various recordings. If you're thinking about acquiring some Haydn symphony recordings, this article may prove useful.
Antal Doráti / Philharmonica Hungarica
This complete undertaking of all the symphonies dates from the late 1960s through the early 1970s. The performances are all on modern instruments without any particularly conscious effort towards being "period".
The strengths of this famous and amply-awarded milestone of modern recording are many. The playing is warm and sympathetic at all times and Doráti's handling of the musical needs of the works is first-rate throughout. In general this is a set of performances which emphasize elegance and clarity, in contrast to modern-day period-instrument groups which frequently emphasize the more passionate, or even rowdy, aspects of the music. (Sometimes one could wish for more of the rowdiness.) The commentary is by H.C. Robbins Landon, the most eminent Haydn scholar of the 20th century. The entire set can be had in a big box from Philips, or one can find the 4-CD volumes (originally from Decca) in used record stores.
Doráti was one the great forces in the dissemination of Haydn's music during the second half of the twentieth century. He also gave us first-rate recordings of most of the Esterházy operas, recordings which are in quite a few cases the only recordings ever made of these unjustly neglected works. The recordings are available in a 20-CD set (two volumes) from Philips, although one has to order from a European dealer to get them.
Adam Fischer / Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra
To date this is the only absolutely complete single-group set besides the Doráti to have been brought to completion. The orchestra is composed of members of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Hungarian State Orchestras, with the makeup of the orchestra changing over the years as the recordings were made. (The project required well over a decade.) The set was originally put out by Nimbus, but when Nimbus went into receivership the set was re-issued by Brilliant Classics, in a 33-CD single-box set but no liner notes. With Nimbus returning from the dead, some of the recordings are becoming available in smaller sets with liner notes.
Conductor Adam Fischer, much like Antal Doráti, stresses the musical message and the most effective use of instruments over strictest historical accuracy. In a number of the earlier symphonies, Haydn appears to have provided several slightly different scorings, in particular in regards to trumpets and timpani. Wherever there is an alternate version using trumpets and timpani, Fischer obviously prefers to use them, even when the alternate version isn't all that well substantiated as actually being Haydn's. He's not a purist, in other words. Neither was Haydn for that matter.
Fischer takes a modern-day approach in dealing with repeats: he omits repeats in da capo sections, and will often omit the repeat of the second half of lengthy sonata-form movements. He follows the Robbins Landon recommendation of using keyboard continuo in the earlier symphonies, ending the practice in those symphonies from the 1770s onwards. The continuo is supportive but quite unobtrusive; in my opinion it's some of the best continuo playing around.
The recordings were all made in the Haydnsaal of Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt, one of the two halls where Haydn rehearsed and performed all of his symphonies up through the "Paris" set. It's a wonderfully 'alive' room, very supportive of the relatively small performing forces Haydn had at his disposal. Hearing Symphony No. 13 in this setting gives one a real sense of Haydn's spacious wind/brass writing in the first movement, which was designed to exploit the wide, expansive acoustic of the big room.
No group has done a better job with the big long adagios in the mid-period symphonies. Minor objections include very infrequent brass intonation problems, an occasional bit of sloppy ensemble, and an occasional flat-out goof that should have resulted in a re-take, but the overall standard for intonation and ensemble is quite high. They recorded the later symphonies first, and didn't quite have mastery over the boomy acoustic in the Haydnsaal, but by the end of the series (middle-period works) everybody involved had it all down to a science-with the result that the middle-period symphonies are typically the best performances in the set. We have only two complete single-group sets of the Haydn symphonies, but we are fortunate in that both of them are first-rate productions.
Naxos: Complete Haydn Symphonies (Various)
We can all be grateful for those wonderful people at Naxos and all those budget-priced recordings they are providing us, especially during a time when the recording industry appears to be imploding at an alarming rate.
Unlike Naxos's recordings of the complete Haydn string quartets, which are performed by one (first-rate) group, the recordings of the symphonies are by three different orchestras. The "Naxos secret" is to record lesser-known (hence more affordable) groups, so we do not expect to be hearing the Vienna Philharmonic. The three groups responsible for this set are the Northern Chamber Orchestra under Nicholas Ward, the Nicholas Esterházy Sinfonia under Bela Drahos, and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra under Helmut Müller-Brühl. All of them are good, with the Esterházy Sinfonia being a standout in my opinion.
Recording quality is invariably smooth and natural-sounding -- Naxos has intelligent engineers who have the good sense to know when to leave well enough alone. Program notes are simple, direct, and to the point. These recordings are rarely, if ever, the most interesting around, but they're definitely worth hearing.
I should also mention that Naxos puts out another set of 15 Haydn symphonies by the Capella Istropolitana under Barry Wordsworth, which are acceptable.
Roy Goodman / Hanover Band
This set has been controversial from the get-go but it's always fun and always stimulating. The Hanover Band starts these recordings from a few basic precepts: 1) keyboard continuo throughout, mostly harpsichord with fortepiano for the London symphonies; 2) the keyboard continuo will be quite active and not background; 3) lots of gusto and bravura in the fast movements; 4) brass and timpani will play naturally-no holding back; 5) under no circumstances will any repeat ever be skipped.
I dearly wish they had finished the project; maybe they will some day. It's about halfway done-everything up to about #30, then a break, then the 40s are all represented, then another break, and then the 60s almost without break to the end, although there are some funny blanks even in the late symphonies (88-91, for example, and no 102-104.)
The Hanover Band is a pretty rowdy group and given Haydn's vitality, they have a wild and wooly time of it. Sometimes the rowdiness becomes downright aggressive. Sometimes the keyboard continuo becomes downright invasive. Sometimes slow movements don't work well-period instrument groups aren't always as warm as one might like.
But you've just gotta hear the Hanoverians romp their way through the finale of the "Clock" symphony, or turn the fugal finale of #95 into a sizzling tour de force, or provide the most tender, intimate, and magical rendering of the Andante of the "Surprise" symphony ever recorded. Any Haydn afficionado must have these recordings.
Bruno Weil / Tafelmusik
The period-instrument group Tafelmusik has recorded only about a dozen of the Haydn symphonies but they've done them very, very well. They have all the energy of the Goodman recordings (sometimes even more) but on the whole tend to be much better with slow movements. The group has a bigger, more rounded sound than the Hanoverians and a much more opulent sound than the Academy of Ancient Music.
Sometimes their tempi are too fast for comfort-the finale of #88 approaches incoherence at such a clip-but nobody can ever accuse them of sitting back and taking it easy. All of the recordings are highly recommended; they're on Sony Classical, well-engineered although given a rather skimpy presentation in terms of liner notes and kind of ugly artwork on the cases.
Richard Hickox / Collegium Musicum 90
Hickox has recorded a complete set of Haydn's masses, which are easily the most splendid recordings extant of these many wonderful works. (That's including the recent recordings of the later masses by John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists.) So far, recordings of the symphonies are limited to only half of the "London" symphonies-94, 95, 101-104. I presume Hickox and Chandos are planning to complete the London set with two more volumes; at least I hope they do.
The six (so far) recordings are my absolute favorite Haydn symphony recordings-for both technical and musical reasons. By 'technical' I refer not only to the orchestral playing (tiptop), but also the recording technology itself, which is spectacular. Tempi are beautifully considered. Orchestral sonority is rich, luminous, and properly brassy and drummy. (The last movement of Symphony 104 never received a more blistering, noble, and satisfying performance: I can imagine Haydn cheering the spectacular horn players.) Any future Haydn recordings from this ensemble and conductor will be instant additions to my collection.
Franz Brüggen / Orchestra of the 18th Century
Bruggen and his group have recorded the symphonies from #82 on through #104, with some earlier ones thrown in for good measure.
Most of these are live performances and so aren't always perfectly studio-polished. However, they're usually terrific, especially the glorious renderings of the later London symphonies. They're good about performance practice, eschewing continuo but going for a nice, fat sound with plenty of players per part.
I have found that the recording of the Paris symphonies suffers from a rather pinched recording sound-it doesn't seem to be the orchestra.
Christopher Hogwood / Academy of Ancient Music
This was planned as a big ambitious set of the complete symphonies, really giving Papa Joe the five-star treatment throughout. The series was projected to fill fifteen volumes, with 3 CDs per volume; it made it to Volume 10. The series was cancelled due to low sales, exacerbated by the general downturn in the recording industry. To add insult to injury, all but the most recent volumes have been allowed to go out of print.
It's a solid set, extremely careful in its approach to historical accuracy. The supervisor for the project was James Webster, one of today's most highly respected Haydn scholars. Each volume comes with a meticulously prepared and researched booklet which, all volumes taken together, would have made up a very fine monograph on the Haydn symphonies.
The recordings reflect this rigorously musicological approach: unlike the Fischer set, if there is any question that a particular instrument was not Haydn's original intention, it is left out, even if Haydn may have included the instrument in a later authenticated autograph. Virtually none of the early symphonies make use of trumpets or timpani. Webster is a strong advocate for the absence of continuo (either harpsichord or fortepiano) in Haydn's symphonies, and so there is no continuo anywhere-not even in the earliest works.
This puritanical attitude results in a set which is rather-well-prissy at times. Although there are individual performances which rank as my personal favorites (53, 60, and 63, for example), sometimes the performances fail to do justice to the red-blooded vigor of the works. Nor is the ensemble itself notable for attractive sound-they tend to sound pinched in quiet passages, raspy in louder ones, although there are very strong individual players in the group (such as Anthony Halstead on horn.)
Sir Neville Marriner / Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
This is a set from Philips called the "29 Name Symphonies"-i.e., those Haydn symphonies which have nicknames. Many of those symphonies are well-known (like the "Clock" or "Military" and so forth) but quite a few of them aren't so well known-say the "Fire" or "Laudon" or "Hornsignal". For some weird reason the "Alleluja" symphony (#30) isn't included-I suppose they just didn't record it.
I really love this set. This isn't a notably rambunctious group but what they may lack in elemental fire they make up for (and then some) with lyricism and gorgeous sound. And sometimes they burn with elemental fire as well. They are correct in terms of ornamentation and repeats and all that stuff, but they don't drop into starchiness, become inexplicably violent, or suffer from the weird intonation and ensemble problems that can plague even the best period-instrument groups. (They're a modern-instrument group.)
Since it's less than a third of the symphonies, it doesn't cost too much to purchase (about $70), and all of the performances are excellent. Some are considerably more than excellent-it's the best "Oxford" symphony out there. In particular this group shines with the lyrical symphonies (#43 "Mercury" is absolutely bewitching), and also tends to shine in the slow movements-especially the long contemplative adagios of those symphonies in the 40s and 50s. (Too many of those are nickname-less and so they're not on the set, doggone it.)
There is also a Philips set of the complete "Paris" symphonies, which adds the un-nicknamed 84, 86, and 87 to the above list.
Sigiswald Kuijken / La Petite Bande
This is another period-instrument group, with recordings of various symphonies-not very many overall, about twenty or so. (Some of the recordings are with the Orchestra of the 18th Century, and not La Petite Bande.)
They're good. On the whole there isn't anything in particular to recommend them over another period-instrument group; they have all the strengths and weaknesses of such groups without any of the extremes. But they play in tune, balance sonorities beautifully, select effective tempi, and in general play the symphonies quite well. I definitely prefer them to Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music and rank them right about with Brüggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century. All of their available Haydn recordings can be had in a nice boxed set, which includes a tip-top performance of the Sinfonia Concertante, which is generally listed as Symphony 105.
Trevor Pinnock / The English Concert
These are good, solid period-instrument performances, available in a 6-CD set called "The Sturm und Drang Symphonies" from DGG Archiv. The symphonies represented are: 35, 38, 39, 59, 26, 49, 58, 41, 48, 65, 43, 51, 52, 42, 44, 46, 45, 47, and 50. They're plagued a bit by Hogwoodian gentility but not to the degree of the Academy of Ancient Music recordings. There are some interesting ideas in the set-for example, this is the only recording I know of the "Maria Theresia" symphony (number 48 in C Major) which uses the high C alto horns and timpani; most recordings either opt for high C alto horns and no timpani, or trumpets in place of the horns and timpani. It's a fascinating sound, even if the tempo of the first movement is rather too slow.
Max Goberman / Vienna State Opera Orchestra
Dating from the 1960s, these were the first major attempt to record all of the Haydn symphonies. They didn't make it; there's about 40 of the symphonies.
We may be grateful to this group (and to the sponsoring Haydn Society) for starting the ball rolling with well-researched performances of the Haydn symphonies, using Haydn's instrumental balances and numbers rather than big modern orchestras with everybody trying to play "tiny". The great Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon was present for the recordings and lent his tremendous expertise to solving various textural matters. The original tapes of the recordings seem to have been lost but CDs are available which were taken from good-quality vinyl pressings.
Kudos to these intrepid pioneers, and many thanks. However, the performances are mediocre at best-and often slide below the level of mediocre. Not recommended except to the historically curious.
"Big Band" Recordings
I refer here to sets recorded by some of the big mainstream symphony orchestras, which may cut down the numbers of instruments somewhat but retain a more-or-less modern instrument balance. The result is a lot of strings, with secondary woodwind, and a bit of brass and percussion. The big timpani are played with modern soft mallets and thus are always played piano or pianissimo regardless of Haydn's actual marking. Haydn's orchestration is much more wind-band than string orchestra; it places a great deal of weight on the winds, brass, and timpani. Thus big-band performances, while often very lovely, miss the mark where Haydn's unique scoring practices are concerned. They become a big wash of strings with brass and wind for color splashes. To my ear, this is a significant loss.
Leonard Bernstein / New York Philharmonic
Yes, Leonard Bernstein. He conducted the NY Phil in the two later sets-the "Paris" and the "London" symphonies. They're very interesting. I don't recommend them for one's only recordings of these works, but nonetheless they're stimulating. Typical of that synthetic-loving era, they're gaudily over-engineered: one wonders how on earth anybody ever thought up these balances, in which a single flute playing mezzo-piano manages somehow to drown out the massed forces of the entire Philharmonic.
Colin Davis / Concertgebouw Orchestra
This is a set of the "London" symphonies. For big-band Haydn, they're good. One certainly can't fault the orchestra itself, one of the world's finest.
I do have an objection to this particular set-and I don't care how many awards it has won-in that Davis takes a rather free hand with Haydn's indications. These interpolations-changes of articulation and/or dynamics-wind up irritating me quite a bit.
Bruno Walter / Columbia Symphony
Old-school performances of various (late) Haydn symphonies, elegant and wonderfully chummy. Twinkling, genial ol' Papa Haydn as the early 20th century saw him. But who can resist Walter's glorious lyrical approach? I bet Haydn would have liked them; he knew first-class musicianship when he heard it.
Hermann Scherchen / Vienna Symphony / Vienna State Opera Orchestra
These monophonic recordings come from the 1950s; most of them were previously available on the old Westminister label-source of some surprisingly terrific performances. The available CDs of these performances are mastered from good-quality vinyl pressings. (That means that they're overly boomy given that LPs were equalized with emphasized bass to compensate for poor bass response in the playback equipment of the day.)
They're pretty decent on the whole, although tempi sure tend to be slow. Scherchen had a very lyrical conception of Haydn-sort of the "Papa" Haydn style favored by conductors like Szell and Walter. They make an interesting comparison to more recent recordings which are more fully informed by modern musicology.