Ton Koopman

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 97 & 98

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Veteran Dutch historical-instrument conductor and keyboardist Ton Koopman was once the enfant terrible of Baroque music, scandalizing big-orchestra traditionalists with his historically informed performance of Baroque music. By 2010 or so he had actually become something of a conservative, and perhaps he wanted to feel the bracing breezes of controversy when he embarked on a series of Haydn's "London" symphonies, of which this disc represents the first installment. This is certainly unusual late Haydn, and it's going to give not only traditionalists but even Koopman fans something to think about. The issue is that this really isn't a historically accurate performance. Haydn's symphonies in London (and Paris before that) were performed by notably large orchestras, with perhaps 75 players, but here Koopman's Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra weighs in at the two dozen he could count on at Esterháza for a special event. Perhaps Koopman's argument is that these were the symphonic terms in which Haydn was accustomed to thinking, but Haydn's scoring in these symphonies wasn't typical: there's a lot of brass and woodwinds, and they tend to overwhelm the vibrato-free strings here. There are passages in which they seem almost reduced to decoration. The good news is that nothing Koopman does is unmusical, and he forges overall readings that correspond with the forces he has chosen. The role of the brasses, especially, is very well considered, and Koopman brings out all kinds of cross rhythms contained in the brass and wind parts. The listener who thinks of these pieces as familiar is going to be quite destabilized rhythmically, and that may indeed be to the good. The two symphonies sound quite different from each other, and the disc raises one's appetite for future releases in the series. Another surprise is the "surprise" keyboard part at the end of the Symphony No. 98; Koopman makes a very unusual tempo choice here, and there are other places where he fools with the usual tempi and the joints between slow introduction and the body of a movement. It's all rather curious, but certainly Koopman deserves the benefit of the doubt. There's no complaint at all about the sound; Koopman's Antoine Marchand label (that's "Ton Koopman" in French) delivers wonderful transparency. Booklet notes are in English, German, and French.

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