Roger Norrington

Haydn: Paris Symphonies

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The conductor Roger Norrington remains the bad boy of historically informed performance, which is noteworthy for a man 81 years old when this box set was released in 2015. With this set of Haydn's so-called Paris Symphonies, composed in 1785 and 1786 and first conducted by the sensation of black Paris, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Norrington lives up to his reputation with unorthodox readings that are either brilliant or perverse, depending largely on your own individual reaction. A balanced account might point to several factors. Most prominent is an idiosyncratic approach to tempo, particularly in the slow movements. Before you shell out the price of this three-CD set, try to sample the "Allegretto" movement of the Symphony No. 85 (CD one, track six) to see what you're getting into: Norrington and the admittedly brilliantly compliant strings of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra blaze through it in a mere four minutes and 51 seconds, including all repeats. Several (although curiously not all) of the other slow movements and slow introductions are comparable. Norrington perhaps puts too much stock in Haydn's tempo markings, which in an era before the standardization of the metronome were notoriously subjective and variable. The flat, vibratoless strings that are Norrington's trademark are here throughout, creating a standard sheen into which Norrington injects crescendos that are nowhere to be seen in Haydn's scores. It's tempting to conclude that those scores serve merely as a starting point for further creative work in Norrington's hands, but in other respects the performances do catch lots of detail that others miss. The wind instruments are deployed to the rear of the divided strings, and their parts emerge nicely in a kind of sinfonia concertante-like texture, especially the oboe in several places. Norrington's control over his orchestra is unquestionable, and his concept is both original and executed in a thoroughgoing way. It's just a question of whether you accept it.

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