CD Reviews

Box sets capture the scope of Haydn

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / December 28, 2009

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Franz Joseph Haydn was one of music’s great self-starters. Much of his career was spent not in the cultural hub of Vienna but in the small town of Eisenstadt, 30 miles away. “I was cut off from the world,’’ he once said. “There was no one to confuse or torment me, and I was forced to become original.’’

As the 200th anniversary year of the composer’s death draws to a close, Haydn’s originality seems only to grow with each passing year. Especially in the two genres that he molded into principal vehicles of the classical tradition - the symphony and the string quartet - his efforts have proved to be inexhaustible sources of wit, innovation, and sheer good listening.

The Haydn year has been celebrated with a slew of recordings - some new but also many repackagings of classics from bygone decades. One of the most welcome reissues is the set of Haydn’s complete symphonies by the Philharmonia Hungarica under conductor Antal Dorati, released earlier this year by Decca. Comprising all 104 numbered symphonies, plus two works of indeterminate date and the Sinfonia Concertante, these recordings have been summits of Haydn interpretation since they began appearing in the 1970s.

The complete set runs to 33 CDs, and just contemplating the chunky box in which they’re housed induces an apprehensive sense of the magnitude of Haydn’s achievement. The way to stave off this feeling is to dip into these recordings at random, rather than starting at Symphony No. 1 and ending with No. 104. It’s especially instructive for listeners familiar only with the last 23 symphonies, including those written for performance in Paris (Nos. 82-87) and for Haydn’s journeys to London (Nos. 93-104). While it’s true that not every one is a masterpiece on the level of those mature symphonies, a few weeks with this set provided a pleasant reminder of the treasures that are sprinkled throughout Haydn’s symphonic corpus.

There are gemlike moments everywhere: the finale of Symphony No. 60, its headlong energy interrupted by the sounds of strings retuning on stage; the hushed lyricism of the slow movement of No. 43; the broad, emphatic opening of No. 13, sounding like a precursor of early Beethoven; the unusual complexity of No. 54’s slow movement, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Mozart’s famous G-minor symphony. Additional revelations abound, and there is something of interest in every work.

Dorati conducts everything with a keen understanding of the intertwining grandeur and humor of Haydn’s style.

Leonard Bernstein was another great, if very different, Haydn conductor. His accounts of the “Paris’’ and “London’’ symphonies have been packaged with 4 of Haydn’s masses and the oratorio “The Creation’’ into a somewhat less overwhelming box. (Sony) The recordings were made before the advent of period-instrument style, and the large orchestral forces (the New York Philharmonic) and Bernstein’s trademark intensity convey a joy in this music that few conductors could match, let alone exceed.

Box sets like these, especially the Dorati, may seem like artifacts in an era of easy downloads. Somewhat surprisingly, though, a brand new 37-disc cycle (Sony, unavailable at this writing) of the complete symphonies was released a few weeks ago; the performers are the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies. That a major label still sees fit to make that kind of investment is a clear sign that the legacy of Haydn’s symphonies is proof enough of their enduring value.

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