Recording of the Week Colin Davis conducts the LSO in Haydn Symphonies
Some late Haydn symphonies for you this week, with Sir Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. I've always been a big fan of Davis's recordings of Haydn (especially a delightful performance of The Seasons, also on LSO Live), and so I was looking forward tremendously to hearing these symphonies, which were recorded at various times during 2010 and 2011.
The set begins with Symphony No. 92, the so-called 'Oxford' Symphony. Composed in 1789, it earned its nickname as it was the symphony that Haydn conducted at the Sheldonian Theatre in 1791 to mark his receipt of an honorary doctorate from the university. For me, this performance ideally exemplifies all of the things that I like about these recordings. If I had to choose one word to sum up these performances, it would be poise. Everything is elegant and refined, and phrases are beautifully shaped, especially in the slow movements. The strings play with a wonderfully tender tone, most notably at the beginning of the symphony, but also throughout the second movement (Adagio cantabile), in which they are joined by some eloquently expressive playing from the wind and horns (especially the principal oboe).
As well as the 'Oxford' Symphony, this set includes four of the 'London' Symphonies (Nos. 93, 97, 98, and 99) written, as their nickname suggests, either during or in anticipation of Haydn's visits to London in the 1790s. As always, Davis's use of rubato to sculpt a phrase is very much in evidence, nowhere more so than the Menuetto of Symphony No. 97, where he stretches upbeats and delays downbeats just enough to give the movement a charming rustic swagger.
Unusual among this group is Symphony No. 98, which includes a part for obbligato harpsichord. Whilst normally limited to continuo in its function, the harpsichord is given a brief solo passage towards the end of the last movement, played here with panache by veteran harpsichordist John Constable, coupled with a stylish violin solo from the LSO's leader. In fact, the leader at the first performance was Johann Peter Salomon, the man responsible for bringing Haydn to London, so this moment is a nice nod by Haydn (who would have been directing the performance from the harpsichord) to the circumstances of the symphony's composition.
Speaking of references to the place of composition, the ravishing Adagio from Symphony No. 98 begins with the same chord progression as God Save the King. I don't know whether it was intentional on Haydn's part, but perhaps it was a sly nod to his surroundings. Of course, Haydn is known for the humour he injects into his music, and there's plenty of it here. For example, Davis really brings out the off-kilter rhythms in the Trio section of Symphony No. 92's Menuetto movement, and the rude bassoon interruption towards the end of the slow movement of Symphony No. 93, calling everyone back to order after the movement seems to be fizzling out and losing its way, is very nicely done indeed. There's also some very jolly playing from bassoons and second horn with their octave leaps in the last movement of No. 92.
Overall then, these performances simply radiate joy: you can almost see Davis's benevolent smile as he conducts Haydn's delightful slow movements, and the Allegro movements burst forth with delight. Even if you already have several recordings of these symphonies, I really can't recommend these new performances highly enough.
London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis
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