Hermann Scherchen

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 45, 48, 92, 94, 100 & 101

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For roughly the first half of the 20th century, the symphonies of Franz Joseph Haydn were commonly numbered from 1 through 12 as relatively little was known about the previous 92; though there was some awareness about the "Paris" symphonies as these had been published in Haydn's lifetime and the "Morning, Noon and Night" cycle was also very occasionally heard. "Papa" Haydn was viewed as a genial, princely fellow who stood at the door of the garden shed where he did his composing, happy as a clam to serve the house of Eszterháza until the arrival of old age, London, and fame. And on the whole, most conductors handled his music that way. Toscanini is remembered for many great things, but his facility with Haydn isn't one of them; his piquant, easygoing minuets and uneventful opening movement allegros are part of the reason why audiences found themselves yawning when appeased of the knowledge that Papa Haydn was on the bill of fare. One conductor of that day who would have none of that was Herrmann Scherchen, who was the one pre-1950 conductor who led more of Haydn's symphonies than any other and, over the course of his life, recorded 21 of them; the "Military" Symphony No. 100 three times, no less. An excellent memorial of the Scherchen's handling of Haydn is this Tahra disc, , which contains commercial studio accounts of six Haydn symphonies never before released on CD.

Although the orchestras he utilizes are of standard size, Scherchen handles Haydn much as 21st century period instrument bands do; his Allegros are breathlessly racing and of blazing intensity; his slow movements full of rapt attention and flexibility, and his minuets are rife with wit and a kind of sardonic humor more common to string quartets than full-on symphony orchestra interpretations of Haydn. Overall the sound is quite good, though only the "Farewell" Symphony is in stereo and, owing to a defect in the master tape, the last 45 seconds of it is rendered in mono, though when you listen this works out very well; Scherchen's musicians bid one another "auf wiedersehn" as they depart, and hearing the final greeting exchanged between the last two violinists in mono seems to have a special kind of pictorial poignancy. The recordings with the Vienna Opera Orchestra have the same brittle edge that most Westminster recordings of that era, but the transfers are excellent and it is not too bothersome. Even among those, there are electrifyingly exciting moments; the opening Allegro of the "Maria Theresia" literally seems like the orchestra is on fire; the percussion in the second movement Allegretto of the "Military" Symphony has a sense of weight and gravity that is awe inspiring. There aren't a lot of historical recordings of Haydn's symphonies that are liable to inspire the post-modern Haydn enthusiast, but this Tahra collection pulls together six of the very best performances of that kind under one roof, and in that sense this is an indispensible reissue.

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