Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 97 & 102 SACD

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 10

Adam Fischer’s latest Haydn release for MDG shows exactly the same interpretive approach as in previous issues: superb orchestral playing and a vaguely “period”-influenced treatment featuring timpani with hard sticks and small (too small) performing forces. However, like so many conductors in this music today (for example Simon Rattle’s grotesque recent Berlin Haydn performances on EMI), Fischer treats Haydn’s symphonies as receptacles for interpretive ideas that are less appropriate to Haydn’s musical aesthetic than they are born of a virtuoso conductor’s desire to “do something” with the music. Granted, he never goes as far as Rattle. He phrases in large paragraphs with a basic naturalness of expression and doesn’t indulge in wholesale rewriting of the dynamics of exposition repeats. But there’s still much too much Fischer and not enough Haydn going on here.

Let me explain through one example in detail, because the rest of the performances are cut from the same interpretive cloth. The exposition of Symphony No. 97’s first movement is one of Haydn’s most militant, with pounding trumpets and drums. Despite the attempt and “period” sound, Fischer never permits his trumpets sufficient prominence until the very end of the movement (the same holds true of those “yapping” horns in the finale, and the muted trumpets in the slow movement of Symphony No. 102). Rather than a proud onslaught of major-key aggression, Fischer launches the first subject forte, subito dimenendo, and then crescendo, where Haydn clearly intends a straight forte throughout. The result sounds merely fussy, and certainly less exciting than doing it Haydn’s way.

In general, Fischer seems allergic to playing a phrase at a consistent dynamic. The end of the first subject cuts off suddenly, followed by a rest lasting one and two-thirds bars, before the second subject waltzes in. It’s a typically Haydnesque surprise: he has done his best to disguise the fact that this movement is actually in 3/4 time until the second subject appears in total contrast to its “military” predecessor. Fischer plays the end of the first subject diminuendo, giving it a feminine ending completely at odds with the intended effect. He employs this “tapering” effect constantly, throughout all of the performances here. Then he exaggerates the length of the pause before the second subject begins, to the point where the music’s rhythmic continuity is lost. All of these habits, particularly the dynamic adjustments, are much less serious in the slow movements and minuets, but in the outer movements of both symphonies they cause problems.

As I’ve noted before, we are getting farther and farther away from a time when conductors (and soloists) grew up trained in, and understanding, the sonata style–in particular, the ability to create excitement and find expressive depth in successfully articulating a movement’s large-scale structure, even if this means sacrificing immediacy of effect. Fischer, like so many of his colleagues, takes the excellence of the orchestra as license to micromanage the music to the point where it loses some of its inherent strength and energy, and in Haydn this is always a bad idea. It’s a pity really, because the playing as such is outstanding, the sonics marvelous, and I really enjoyed much of what happens in the inner movements of both symphonies. But it’s just not enough. I can’t help feeling that this fine orchestra would turn in results truer to Haydn’s conception with no conductor at all.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Both Works: Brüggen (Philips), Bernstein (Sony)

JOSEPH HAYDN - Symphonies Nos. 97 & 102; Overture to Orfeo ed Euridice

  • MDG - 901 1452-6
  • SACD

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