In his 2004 review of Bernstein's Haydn recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, Classical Net's Raymond Tuttle lamented how difficult these excellent performances were hard to find. Since then, Sony/BMG has released both this 12-CD box (2009) and a box of assorted symphonies (2012, Sony Classical 8691-99176-2). Despite the latter's super budget price, this is both more comprehensive and better annotated, so it's clearly the one to have.
I think that the reason these performances don't get more credit is that they haven't been available regularly since the pre-internet days. Sony Classical has pushed the great man's Mahler, Americana, and to a lesser extent his own work at the expense of his work in the Classical period. Neither in the Bernstein Century edition nor the Original Jacket Collection did Haydn feature. The truth is that in retrospect Bernstein was a reliable and passionate advocate for both Beethoven and Haydn, and his work is almost always of high quality. The Royal Edition hinted at this, but for young people like myself, we only know those through reissues, specialty shops, and the entirely questionable Prince Charles watercolor prints that graced every issue.
There has been a ton of Haydn since these performances, both on modern and period instruments, but it's debatable whether there have been better performances. Broadly speaking, Bernstein brings out more wit and charm than most period performances allow, and he's nowhere near as self-indulgent as many of his detractors claim. Indeed, especially in the Paris Symphonies and quite a few of the masses, he's really impressive. When he does choose to indulge, it usually misfires – a problem in the Nelson Mass, for example – but when things go right, they remain unsurpassed. They easily surpass Lenny's somewhat heavy and mannered later performances that Tuttle reviewed on DG. In particular, the vocal works simply outshine the audibly labored remakes.
Are there caveats? Sure. The various orchestras play well, but there are moments of sloppy ensemble. The choral singing is good, but not great as these masterpieces require. This is consistent with much of Bernstein's early work, which generally favors excitement and fervor over polish. It stands in stark contrast to someone like Colin Davis' Haydn, performances with the Concertgebouw that mix supreme polish with keen interpretive insight. Yet, roughness isn't all bad; Adam Fisher's complete symphony set on Nimbus isn't going to win any awards for orchestral brilliance, and neither are these performances. Frankly, it doesn't matter much, but it is noticeable, especially if the Davis' and other modern performances grace your shelves. The sonic quality is also variable. If it matters to you, only the Theresia Mass is digital. Sony would have done well to re-master the whole set. Again, not major, but noticeable. My final complaint is more petty. Getting the CDs out of the sleeves is simply a pain in the rear. This was a problem with the otherwise excellent Bernstein Mahler reissue. To get the CDs out, you usually end up damaging the albums, and there's no excuse for that.
Still, at the end of the day this very reasonably-priced set offers a great way to get lots of major Haydn works in one place, led by one of the greats of the last century. Despite some variable performances, overall there are few better boxes on the market to give an overall sense of both the composer's and conductors' gifts. Considering that Sony likes to keep these things in print for so little time, the fact that it's still around is a blessing. Buy it. Love it.
Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman