Adam Fischer's recording of all Haydn's symphonies with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra is a major achievement and can safely be recommended as a "best buy" if you want to have them all from one source – in celebration of the Haydn bicentenary, perhaps. Originally recorded for Nimbus (until the label's eventual bankruptcy in 2001) over the dozen or so years in the Haydnsaal of the Esterházy Palace in Hungary, on modern instruments, the 33-CD set has been taken over and marketed by Brilliant so represents extremely good value for money. The same CDs form the symphonies collection of Brilliant's complete 150-CD Haydn Edition (93782).
The main couplings (various alternative ones did appear along the way) on Nimbus were: Volume 1 (N15426-30, 5CDs) Symphonies Nos 1-20; Volume 2 (NI5683-87, 5CDs) Symphonies 21-39, "A" & "B"; Volume 3 (N15530-4, 5CDs) Symphonies 40-54; Volume 4 (N15590-4, 5CDs) Symphonies 55-69; Volume 5 (N15652-5, 4CDs) Symphonies 70-81; Volume 6 (N154119-20, 2CDs) Symphonies 82-87 ("The Paris Symphonies"); Volume 7 (N15417-8, 2CDs) Symphonies 88-92; and Volume 8 (N15200-4, 5CDs) Symphonies 93-104 ("The London Symphonies"). A handful of alternatives and subsets – "great" and "Stürm und Drang" etc. – was also issued during the lifetime of the project.
Only two competitors should now be considered for available complete sets: Doráti's truly groundbreaking boxes of LPs from the 1970s with the Philharmonia Hungarica, now reissued by Decca (4781221) also on 33 CDs. This also offers alternative instrumentations for some of the symphonies – and is thus technically more complete. Then there is a cycle with a variety of conductors (including Wordsworth, Müller-Brühl, Drahos and Ward) and orchestras on Naxos (8.503400).
Other comparable projected, incomplete or otherwise unavailable cycles are conducted by Derek Solomons in the 1980s on Saga; by Bruno Weil on Sony a little after the latter label took over and dropped the Saga rights. Hogwood (L'Oiseau Lyre) also began a complete cycle from which the later symphonies come off much better than his spare treatment of the earlier ones. Similarly Roy Goodman's period instrument performance cycle (on Hyperion) is incomplete. Harnoncourt (Warner Classics) also uses period instruments and, while respecting the definitive score of H.C. Robbins Landon, has some debatable tempi, as does Fey (Hänssler Classic), albeit on modern instruments, and in his own way as does Br&uumpl;ggen (Philips). So Fischer started in many ways with something of an open field for complete sets of the symphonies. He has made the most of it.
This set from Fischer now has to be seen as the standard by which subsequent performances will be judged. It reveals so much about the nature of Haydn's achievement without a hint of either the perfunctory or the wayward. At the same time it retains a distinctiveness that will delight as much as it will inform listeners both familiar with all Haydn's symphonies and those aware of, perhaps, some of the earlier named ones and the "Paris" or "London" sets.
Fischer and his producers decided to present all 106 symphonies (those numbered 1-104 plus "A" Hoboken I:107 , "B" I:108  and the Sinfonia Concertante I:105 ) in numerical order. That's as good a way to sequence them as any since discrepancies between dates of composition, revision, performance and publication will never comply completely with any one scheme. Hoboken's numbering is largely chronological anyway. It means on average three symphonies to a CD, with between two and five on the rest. This spacing and sequence works well.
Yes, modern instruments. But with meticulous attention to the performance practices which we know to have been in use in Haydn's time. Above all, Fischer achieves this through the way he prefigures, builds up, maintains then releases tension. This is more than mere tightness or tautness of tempi and phrasing. Few of the movements, if any, are faster-paced than they ought to be. Nor is this side of Fischer's direction a peremptoriness, a more than appropriate business-like touch. Rather, it's a sprightliness, a transparent and informed acknowledgement of the way in which, presumably, Haydn expected his music to be played – with not a hint of romanticism or maudlin. Yet full of feeling. Vibrato is minimal. Brass in particular play with as penetrating a flare as can be expected. This set is an overtly modern one. But shot through with authenticity, with technical aplomb and with expressiveness. Nor is Haydn's famed sense of humor neglected, underplayed – or for that matter overplayed. But add this to the beauty, depth, development across the nearly 40 years over which Haydn wrote his symphonies and you have a remarkably precious collection of CDs.
Given the span of time over which these interpretations were conceived and recorded some evolution on the part of Fischer and his forces in conception and execution was inevitable – desirable, even. And it's there to be heard, and enjoyed. Although always perceptive, Fischer's greater freedom in the way he sees the symphonies is evident. In other words he approached this undertaking not as a way to produce a reference set; in many ways Doráti's represented that. But more as a way to draw the listener in and respond to the particularities of each symphony in its own right. One is continually struck by the way in which each symphony differs from the previous and next ones.
Indeed, such marked and justifiable individuality is one of the things that makes the set so appealing. Ornamentation, grace notes, rubato, augmented and reduced instrumentation (especially strings in the repeats), carefully thought-out dynamics, changes of pace. These all add to the sense that you are listening to music that is as individual in conception as it is monumental in scope. In fact you notice the interpretative stamp which Fischer employs right from the early symphonies. And not necessarily because they were the last to be recorded. It's more accurate to say that Fischer's confidence grew: take the two G minor symphonies, number 83 [CD.25 tr.s 5-8], which was recorded in 1991 and number 39 [CD.10 tr.s 5-8] in 2001. Fischer clearly stamps his personality on the latter more than the former. But that personality is a confident, competent and knowledgeable one. So it's not intrusive.
Because Fischer's concept of the œvre is a broad, mature and insightful one, we can only be glad that he isn't trying to present a "reference" set. In that respect he's doing Haydn (and us) the same sort of service as Doráti did. He's drawing attention to the profundity and beauty of the symphonies. And producing first class accounts of every movement, every bar. When you take Haydn's famed sanguine temperament into account, it makes sense to have each performance as expressive as can be.
None of this would work, though, if the hand-picked musicians of the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra (players from the Vienna Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony and Hungarian State Symphony Orchestras) were not technically up to the task. Presumably the make-up of the orchestra changed between 1987 and 2001; at least in part. Yet there is a wholeness of approach, and an integrity of attitude, that make you very quickly feel as though you are in excellent hands. The instrumentalists play invariably with a solidity and assurance that sucks you into the enterprise from the very first track.
Significantly, though, at the same time there is never a thought of sameness in the way Fischer and the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra reveal music which was itself breaking new ground, if not at every turn, then certainly in small steps throughout Haydn's career. That several of them (those at the start of the composer's first visit to London, for example) should have been composed so quickly and in what was otherwise a vacuum is remarkable. And the interpretations on this set do more than acknowledge the fact. They celebrate it by – for example – intuitive tempi and a sense of spaciousness among the players as movements develop. To say that the standard of playing is in any way uneven would be unfair. There are obviously movements, symphonies and even groups – including many of the earlier ones (41 and 47 are delights, for example) – about which Fischer (and/or the players) are more enthusiastic than others. But this is only to be expected. There is a lightness of touch, a deftness in tempi and in the way the momentum of the structures are handled, that come from great affection and familiarity with the priorities occupying Haydn in the mid 1760s. Similarly the pathos and color of the "Stürm und Drang" period symphonies is as intense and vibrant as any on record.
Fischer alludes in the accompanying booklet to a "vernacular" idiom, Der aufstampfende Auftakt, with a "rustic" ritardando in the upbeat followed by a slightly delayed first beat with a heavy accent, mostly used in minuets. Again, as the cycle proceeds (which, as noted, generally means in the recordings of the middle and earlier symphonies) more use is made of the technique. Another example of the ways in which Fischer "personalized" the project in an appropriate and authentic way.
Some of the lead-ins at the start of the symphonies on many of the CDs are pretty long; you need to be aware that Yes your player is working and the CD is about to start; but you have to wait. The acoustic is good and works well with the scale and dynamic of the symphonies, though was obviously tempered as the project progressed – and became less resonant. Each CD comes in its own sturdy cardboard sleeve within the substantial box and a useful booklet detailing all the symphonies.
Although it might seem like an either intimidating or unnecessary undertaking to buy into the most numerous corpus of any major symphonist, Fischer and the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra have in many ways made the choice easy. They have not homogenized the collection. Nor have they tried to impose artificially over-individualized interpretations. But they have revealed the amazing variety, the development and the beauty and depth of the works. So this is a set of the Haydn symphonies as discrete and distinct works, not a set of the cycle merely to allow collectors to say they have collected them. It seems inconceivable that at each new listening (whether you work your way through all hundred and some once or twice a year perhaps; or whether you dip into individual periods or even symphonies) you won't get something new and fulfilling from each session. A set recorded over the time necessary to complete it in this case and over the decades which Haydn took to compose them, if it's to be in any way searching and fresh, will have uneven points. In the case of Fischer, these are remarkably few. And at Brilliant's price it becomes even more of a bargain. Thoroughly recommended.
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Sealey
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