JWR Articles: CD - Philharmonia Baroque: Three Haydn Symphonies (Conductor: Nicholas McGegan) - January 19, 2012
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Philharmonia Baroque: Three Haydn Symphonies

3.5 3.5
76 min.

Reading between the lines

As music notation and printing presses improved, the possibility for a composer’s main intentions (few of whom, if offered the chance/choice would resist making minute adjustments for a next “edition”) to be realized increased exponentially.

From the Classical period onwards, urtexts (original scores) were dutifully cared for—many of them finding their way into libraries as a starting-point reference for modern editions. Over time, well-meaning musicologists such as Haydn scholar H. Robbins Landon used their considerable knowledge to offer “definitive” versions of the scores and settle nagging questions (slur or separate?; accent or not?; accidentals?, et cetera) to, hopefully, ensure that every performance would at least be true to the notes if not—how could that ever be written down?—the subtext behind the musical representation of black-and-white dots on paper?

In my own conducting days, Haydn held a special place in my heart, regularly finding his way onto the menu. Ever frustrated when the study score I was using failed to match the full score and the parts, I finally had the opportunity to prepare a performance of Symphony No. 104 using a facsimile of the original in Haydn’s hand. Not surprisingly, a few puzzles remained even after painstakingly reviewing every measure. Being pragmatic and busy, various bits of shorthand were employed to show doubling but not every case could be resolved conclusively. Instrumentation, dynamics and rests were also problematic: articulation was a minefield of dilemmas. Finally, the only way forward was thinking back on the twenty-six other symphonies I had conducted, employing my own “shortcut” strategies as a sometime composer and then letting my intuition and experience fill in the blanks. The resulting performances—necessarily—were in some ways like no other, but—details aside—unlocking the feeling and all that was intended but impossible to notate still remained the overarching goal. I felt closer than ever to the master—those listening would have to apply their own background and understanding to determine just how close this version came to approaching the ever-elusive truth.

These three symphonies, presented in the order in which they were recorded live over a three-year stint in the Philharmonic Baroque’s Berkley venue (First Congregational Church), are long on verve and enthusiasm yet short on razor-sharp ensemble and incredible spirit that fills every page in some fashion or other.

With the likes of George Szell’s recordings setting an incredible bar to this day (the demanding dynamo’s extra-special understanding of Haydn’s humour—who else can make a joke with modulations?, sense of balance (particularly being consistent with note lengths) and harmonic plan (once McGegan moves beyond his considerable ability to light a fire under the players and—as witness the finale of No. 101—ensure that the major cadences truly resolve, he may well move into the next plane of artistry), it’s a rare performance indeed that draws one thumbs up much less two.

In No. 104, the length of the frequent chords sporting fermatas is barely the time taken to play them without pause. Once launched the “Allegro” moves forward with conviction yet fails to arrive at critical harmonic incidents (often following the augmented sixth). The “Andante” is a breath of fresh air until the trumpets veer towards raucous punctuation. The “Menuetto” is the best movement of the opener, if a touch fast (always subjective) for my taste. The benchmark “If Mozart is in the boudoir then Haydn’s at the pub” for the usual third-movement dances is more often true than not.

In many ways, Symphony No. 88 is the most convincing of the set. The orchestra and recording engineer (David v.R. Bowles) produce a marvellous ring and compelling string tone (the violins are superb in the “Finale”, if marred from time-to-time by a few wayward open strings—how “close” to place the microphones always offers hits and misses).

How much Beethoven gleaned from Haydn can be heard and felt in the opening measures of Symphony 101. McGegan creates a delectable aura of warm, liquid legato, raising the possibility that all that follows will be cut from the same dramatic cloth. Unfortunately, the ensuing “Presto” errs on the side of jolly rather than breathtakingly intense, taking the ear for a romp rather than an adventure. The famous clock is wound up too fast, leaving the full impact of the middle section’s mighty contrast for another day and letting the coda say a quick goodbye rather than reluctant adieu. Lifting after the slurs and a notch less speed would bring this “Menuetto” into the realm of greatness; a rock-steady tempo from the podium would pay huge dividends in the closing movement.

Viewed as a whole, McGegan gets so close to what isn’t seen, one can hardly wait for the next installment to discover if everything finally comes together. JWR

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Conductor - Nicholas McGegan
Repertoire:
Symphony No. 104 in D Major "London" - Franz Joseph Haydn
Symphony No. 88 in G Major, Hob. 1:88 - Franz Joseph Haydn
Symphony No. 101 in D Major "Clock" - Franz Joseph Haydn
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