2010, Music

Haydn: London Symphonies (2010) by Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski

This is an excellent collection of Haydn’s final symphonies, the “London symphonies.”

The first (93rd overall) begins with a downright Romantic movement and that first movement plays around with tonality a little bit more than the average classical symphony. A later movement plays with the theme. Very interesting. One of the better of the bunch. It’s worth noting that he didn’t write it first.

The second (94th overall) starts off very conventionally. But there’s a reason it’s known as the “Surprise” symphony, and that reason has got to be one of the most shocking moments in the Classical era, perhaps in Western Art Music up until it was written (1792). Now, I tend to make a rather big deal about daring individual moments, perhaps more so than I should. But I can’t help myself here, as it’s unlike anything that ever occurred before in the tradition (to my limited knowledge). I guess the criticism of this is that it’s just one moment, and maybe the symphony as a whole isn’t all that great. But I can’t separate the moment – a moment of utter daring but, at the same time, a sense of humour so rare – at least in much of the 20th century – in the stuffy traditionalism of the classical tradition. There’s a little bit of a hint it’s coming. At about 35 seconds into the movement there’s a brief pause that really shocks you. But at 50 seconds or so is when the crazy chord comes out of nowhere. And even today it shocks audiences. It sounds like an idea out of modernism. But here it is in a symphony written in 1792. My mind has been blown.

The third (95th) is, because of its minor key, a little more downbeat in tone than the rest. It is one of his symphonies that seems to me to almost suggest Romantic music. Like so many of his symphonies, it has little unconventional tricks. It’s one of the best here, in my mind.

The fourth (96th) was actually written first and I feel like you can tell. It has some neat flourishes and the like but is possibly the least interesting of the twelve symphonies.

The fifth (97th) is one of the most conventional of these late symphonies. The second and third movements both have neat little tricks in them, but on the whole the work isn’t quite as bold as some of the others in this series.

The sixth (98th) has another one of these really dark openings that Haydn seemed so fond of at the time (see the 93rd and the “London”). It’s a relatively radical symphony for him, even at this late date (though like many of his more innovative works, it’s hard for us lay people to pick up on all the innovations). It’s pretty solid.

The seventh (99th) begins with a very different opening (to my ears) to most of the other symphonies in this set. It is striking in its tempo and apparently also in its tonality (though I have a hard time hearing that). It’s a pretty interesting work and I think it’s kind of easy to tell that this was written on his second trip, i.e. a couple years after many of the symphonies in this set were written. It seems more mature to me.

The eighth (100th) or “Military” sure doesn’t sound martial at first. The opening movement is about as typically “classical” as I could imagine a symphony, I think. The second has a lot of cymbals, so I guess that’s what makes it sound “military”. There’s certainly more percussion in this movement than I can recall in any other of Haydn’s. But it doesn’t really make a huge impression on me, despite that apparent novelty.

I have heard the “Clock” symphony (the 9th of these) before. I continue to like it.

The tenth (102nd) is yet another of these symphonies with a kind of moody, proto Romantic opening. It’s also the second of these (if memory serves) that opens slowly, a relatively unique thing at the time, I believe. But of the later London symphonies, it is certainly one of the least interesting.

The eleventh (103rd) starts off about as wacky as any classical symphony I’ve heard with timpani, hence it’s nickname “Drumroll.” Following the drum roll, the opening notes remind me of a Romanic piece of music I can’t quite place. Both effects are rather daring – though it’s likely the Romantic piece I’m thinking of was inspired by this symphony. It’s also super slow to start out, though it picks up in pace. To me it’s certainly more affecting than many of his others, and I love that opening.

I have heard the “London” before; it’s one of his best.

This kind of collection is the best way to hear the works of the past, in my mind. And this series probably represents not only the height of Haydn’s symphonic work, but the best classical symphonies out of Mozart – that’s me talking out of my ass.

Great stuff.


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