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Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 99-104.

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 99-104. Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 85513-2 (2-disc set).

Time was, you couldn't mention the late Haydn symphonies without mentioning Sir Thomas Beecham. The symphonies were among his treasures, and he spent a lifetime playing and perfecting them before recording them in stereo late in his career in 1959. The maestro's experience shows, and for most of the late fifties and sixties, the Beecham records held sway.

By the late sixties and mid seventies, however, other conductors had come along to provide Beecham some competition: Klemperer and Jochum in particular. Then came Colin Davis, Slatkin, Mackerras, Kuijken, Goodman, and others. But now that I've returned to these recordings, I see little reason to question their authority as the overall best of the lot.

Oh, there are individual favorites I still retain, like Klemperer in "The Clock" and Jochum in the "Military" Symphony, but as a set, these final six of Haydn's twelve "London" Symphonies from Beecham are hard to beat. They're called the "London" Symphonies, of course, because they were written by Haydn while he was temporarily living in London. Four of the final six have descriptive nicknames that call them easily to mind: No. 100, the "Military" because of its march and the martial sound of its percussive instrumentation; No. 101, the "Clock" because of its second movement imitation of a clock's second hand ticking; No. 103, the "Drum Roll" because of its ... wait for it ... drum roll; and No. 104, the "London" simply because it was the last symphony Haydn would write in London. Or anywhere, for that matter.

Beecham brings to the performances his usual joyous, cheerful mood plus a touch so light you can feel the music wafting out of the speakers, floating out the window, and into the breeze. Yet in the culminating "London" Symphony there is a nobility and grandeur to match Mozart's "Jupiter." The playing is felicitous throughout, the atmosphere always loving, always caring. Nothing about the performances seems anything but perfect. They simply remain head and shoulders above any and all rivals.

Unfortunately, when I first heard them on compact disc early in the CD era, I didn't care for the sound at all; they had not made a good transition to silver. The sound was hard, edgy, and exceptionally noisy. It was one of my biggest disappointments not to have Beecham's Haydn included my then-new CD music collection. But a few years ago EMI remastered the symphonies, and in this two-disc set they sound fine. There is still a touch of background noise if played loudly, but who plays Haydn loudly? And the sound is still a tad thin in the bass. But a smoother net effect now graces the ear, warmer and less brittle. The midrange is perhaps not as transparent as it could be, but there is nothing, really, that should deter a listener from appreciating the performances to their fullest. A wonderful investment.
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Author:Puccio, John
Publication:Sensible Sound
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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