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SACD Review

Franz Joseph Haydn

Late Symphonies

  • Symphony in G Major "Oxford", Hob I: 92 (1789)
  • Symphony in D Major, Hob I: 93 (1791)
  • Symphony in B Flat Major, Hob I: 98 (1792)
  • Symphony in C Major, Hob I: 97 (1792)
  • Symphony in E Flat Major, Hob I: 99 (1793)
London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
LSO Live SACD LSO0702 2Discs Hybrid Multichannel 132:54
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This is a worthy tribute to the late Colin Davis. Recorded in 2011, these London Symphony Haydn performances easily uphold the conductor's reputation in the Classical repertoire. I've read elsewhere that Davis' London Symphonies (originally on Philips) aren't holding up well; I have never had any problem with those beautifully played and recorded Concertgebouw efforts. While the London Symphony Orchestra does not outplay their Dutch colleagues, they too are on top form. Davis finds – to my ears – just that much more wit and charm in these live versions than in the studio.

You could argue that the London Symphony is a touch more incisive than are the Concertgebouw forces previously. Sure, the warmly lyrical playing can't be beat, and the sound is far superior in Amsterdam than in London (the Barbican tends to be rather dry). On the other hand, this dryness proves somewhat advantageous, especially where Davis sharpens the attack and refuses to linger. Comparing individual movements, there is much to admire in both sets. Davis is rather old-fashioned in both places, given what we've come to expect in this music. The "Oxford" is a very nice surprise. It's not a "London" Symphony in the sense that it's not one of the twelve, nor is it an English commission despite the subtitle. It was composed in France, but occupies the space between the "Paris" and "London" Symphonies. Truthfully, it shares traits of both batches. At any rate, Davis also recorded this piece before, but it must be very hard to find. Unlike many conductors (like Simon Rattle), Davis flatly refuses to turn the Finale into a muddled mess. This means that in terms of speed, these recordings aren't setting records (the only weakness this set has is an occasional tendency to drag) but the clarity is always present.

Truthfully, so much live material released after an artist's death is less than interesting that it's always good to see recordings that actually pay tribute to Davis' strengths. Like John Barbirolli, there's all kinds of live junk that has effectively distracted us from the fact that – under the right conditions – Davis (and Barbirolli, for that matter) was a first-rank artist who championed a wide range of music on disc. Fans of the conductor will find this an essential purchase, but even those who don't normally warm to big-band Haydn should give this a try. This is an excellent release from LSO Live.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman