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CD Review

Historically Uninformed Performances

Or: Why I Prefer Monteux's Haydn

  • Franz Joseph Haydn:
  • Symphony #94 "Surprise" in G Major, Hob I: 94 (1791)
  • Symphony #101 "Clock" in D Major, Hob I:101 (1794)
  • Johannes Brahms: Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op. 24 (1861)
Vienna Philharmonic & London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
London 452893
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

Let me begin by telling you that the latest batch of "The Classic Sound" series sounds significantly better than any previous releases of any of Decca's discs. This is true of even the previous "Classic Sound" issues. Then let me tell you that I am almost certain this is the first time these Haydn Symphonies have been issued on CD. I have a memory of the Brahms being previously on CD, but no proof.

Now for a little editorial commentary. Technically these would be called Historically Uninformed (or is it suspect?) recordings. So, too would Beecham's. I also have recordings of Haydn on Naxos which are quite good but different and not Historically Informed Performances (HIP). Frankly I have always found the whole HIP idea a but suspect myself. In some cases it means we have to listen to an orchestra that sounds out-of-tune to our ears (and it is) at clips that make it sound like a metronome steeple chase. What is offered on this London disc is just plain old good music making and I will turn to this recording whenever I want to enjoy Haydn.

You know, Monteux always seemed as if he couldn't help but have a slightly impish smile all of the time. The music making here certainly reflects that character. The sound here certainly adds to the gestalt, too. You would never believe that these pieces were recorded in 1958 and '59. The sound is full and warm, but with detail. More than even on LP I can hear a deep, firm bass line, almost Stokowskisan. Inner details, woodwinds' burble, flute songs, delight the ear. The strings bounce and lilt in joy. Even the percussive moments are a romp. I would love to have been at the recording sessions to watch the proceedings.

The Brahms is no less involving. Monteux plays the piece as if it must have been written by a Brahms with French blood somewhere in his veins. Monteux did a similar thing in a Philipps recording of Beethoven's "Eroica" and both that disc and this Brahms are a fascinating, valid experience. In the insert to this disc it mentions that Monteux once played viola in one of the composer's pieces before the great man himself. I remember reading elsewhere that after listening, Brahms commented that he liked the playing very much. Then he went on to say that the previous week a different group had played the piece much differently and he liked that, too. Those comments came to mind as I listened to these Haydn Variations. The same spirit that inheres in the Haydn Symphonies is present in the Brahms, as well it should be.

So, don't hesitate to get this disc. It will be one of my top ten for 1997.

Copyright © 1998, Robert Stumpf II