Conductor Thomas Fey's ongoing recordings of Haydn's symphonies with his historically oriented Heidelberg Symphony have been widely praised as exciting revisions of the ordinary ways of doing things in connection with Haydn. He uses period brasses (very well played indeed) and percussion with natural animal skins, and the strings, here modern ones, play with very little vibrato in the manner of Fey's teacher, Nikolaus Harnoncourt. At times, although not on this release, he has used a harpsichord continuo. Perhaps it was omitted in this pair of works because both are such big, festive pieces; a harpsichord would distract from the effect. The strength of Fey's approach, as compared with Harnoncourt's in Classical-period repertory, is that he treats each work as an individual. His readings here are less surprising than his hell-for-leather versions of Haydn's minor-key Sturm und Drang symphonies, which have permanently retired the stereotype of the placid Papa Haydn; the mood and pacing here are normal. But listen closely and you'll hear equal originality here. Both the Symphony No. 53 in D major, Hob. 1/53 ("L'impériale"), and Symphony No. 54 in G major, Hob. 1/54, are brass-heavy in the outer movements, and are, in fact, almost dominated by the brasses. Fey's control over these textures, highlighting the brass yet not letting the natural horns take over the music, is impressive. His habit of taking repeats generates a 13-minute slow movement in the Symphony No. 54, an extended fantasy on a very simple two-chord figure; here again Fey's sensitivity to the flow of the music is extraordinary. The angular rhythms of the Symphony No. 54 minuet are pure examples of Fey's originality. These two symphonies have never been considered among Haydn's best, but that's just because few conductors have made the effort to take them on their own terms. That's what Fey does, and he couldn't have picked a better set of engineers than those at Germany's Hänssler label to realize his aims. The Symphony No. 54 comes with a pair of alternate finales whose circumstances of origin are explained in the CD booklet. Strongly recommended even for those not particularly interested in historical approaches; this is simply totally fresh Haydn.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Symphony No. 53 in D major, Hob. 1:53 "L'Impériale"|
|Symphony No. 54 in G major, Hob. 1:54|