Recording of September 1993: Haydn: Symphonies 99, 100, 102, & 104

HAYDN: Symphonies 99 & 102
Frans Brüggen, Orchestra of the 18th Century
Philips 434 077-2 (CD only). Sieuwer Verster, prod.; Jaap Bogaart, eng. DDD. TT: 48:57
HAYDN: Symphonies 100 & 104
Frans Brüggen, Orchestra of the 18th Century
Philips 434 096-2 (CD only). DDD. TT: 53:35

Recordings occasionally come along that put all-too-familiar repertory into a strikingly new and revealing perspective. So it is with these two releases. Though not without minor blemishes, Brüggen's readings present a bold Haydn, at once dramatic and assertive, yet lyrical, graceful, and tender, and a Haydn who is a consummate master of orchestral color.

Brüggen's ear for balance and some exemplary engineering give his roughly 50-piece ensemble a clarity and impact that make one forget that this is reproduced sound. These performances comprise prime instances of period instruments that enhance the expressivity and sense of the music. Time and again, significant wind passages often obscured in other performances are here exposed, enriching timbre and clarifying important motifs. And horns and trumpets have a burnished brightness that further enhances expressivity.

Indeed, there are a few instances where the brass is too forward and obscures important material in the strings—most notably near the close of the exposition and recapitulation of the first movement of 100. In the main, however, the weight and sonority of this orchestra contribute to the success of these performances.

Most striking in Brüggen's interpretations is the way they make clear how Haydn is Beethoven's artistic father. The sharply defined motivic reiteration in the first-movement development of 104 exemplifies an antecedent of the terseness of the Fifth Symphony. The animated breadth and powerful accents favored in the first movement of 99 suggest a harbinger of the "Eroica," and the explosive strokes in the outer movements of 102 sound like anticipations of the bold eruptions in the Fourth Symphony.

In the main, Brüggen's tempos are superbly judged. Allegros are animated, but never breathless; slow movements flow without being rushed, that of 104 (played as a true "walking" Andante) gaining a singing grace and brash intensity I've encountered in no other performance. And one is reminded, too, of the remarkable wit at the core of these works. Note the way Brüggen clarifies how the Finale of 100 has difficulty getting started, and, once in full swing, has almost equal difficulty in coming to a halt.

A few of Brüggen's tempos may raise eyebrows: the second movement of 100 is slow for an Allegretto, and the Menuettos of 99 and 102 may be a bit too fast for some tastes. The only other possibly objectionable features are a few gratuitous Luftpausen and diminuendos that could, on repeated hearings, become wearisome. But overshadowing these minor shortcomings are stunning precision, passion, and power. Brüggen observes all exposition repeats, but, unlike many other authenticists, displays welcome good sense in not imposing repeats on the reprises of the Minuets. In short, these are in every way among the finest Haydn performances to have appeared in recent years.—Mortimer H. Frank