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Minkowski's London Symphonies

available at Amazon
Haydn, 'London' Symphonies,
Les Musiciens du Louvre • Grenoble,
M. Minkowski

(released on June 29, 2010)
Naïve V 5176 | 4h46

Online scores:
Haydn, Symphonies
The most remarkable achievement of Marc Minkowski's new 4-CD set of Haydn's twelve 'London' symphonies, recorded live at the Wiener Konzerthaus last summer, may have been to give Greg Sandow, the Grim Reaper of Classical Music, a moment of genuine pleasure in listening to classical music. As noted by Mark J. Estren in a review in the Washington Post, Minkowski and his band performed the famous "surprise" of Symphony No. 94 with a twist: repeating the section leading up to the subito fortissimo chord in the slow movement three times, with a near-silence, a high-pitched shriek, and the actual chord at the point of that most anticipated of surprises. Far from being concerned about "authenticity," Minkowski's gesture deformed the piece by toying with the listener's expectations -- a surprise that is no longer really a surprise -- and the authority of the score. Sandow's only reservation was that Minkowski should have gone farther and added more improvisatory flourishes or changes to the score.

On a related note, our own Jens Laurson published a challenging -- not to say provocative -- essay last month at his WETA blog. The crux of his argument was that the "historicism" of historically informed performance (HIP) ensembles, while seeming to enrich our musical experiences has also "severely curtail[ed] them, by stigmatizing alternative approaches [and] interpretations." This was probably true twenty years ago, when even HIP advocates were throwing the words "authentic performance" around too much for their own good. (The claim is as at least as old as Johann Peter Salomon, who brought Haydn to London to present these symphonies: later, when he purchased the English rights to the works, Salomon was known to present his concerts, even without Haydn present, as "authentic versions" of the music.) Most listeners, including confirmed old HIPsters like myself, really have no trouble with the "anachronism" of listening to Bach played on the piano, arranged for other combinations, or even Eugène Goossens' outrageous updating of Handel. Jens is surely right that the HIP appropriation of Baroque and Classical composers has made mainstream symphony orchestras shy away from this music, leading to a dearth of Haydn symphonies on National Symphony Orchestra programs, for example.

Just because, at least to my ears and mind, a HIP interpretation is generally to be favored -- if you were going to buy only one recording of a work, for example -- there is no reason not to perform this music other ways, especially if one takes into account the research and thought that has gone into the HIP interpretations (as Alexandre Tharaud, for one, admits to having done). That the HIP movement "kills off improvisatory interpretation" seems incongruous with the fact that HIP specialists are generally among the minority of classical musicians who can actually improvise competently. Furthermore, if the HIP approach "takes away the freedom -- expected, anticipated, and encouraged -- to add, adapt, and alter music to circumstance, ability, whim, and current fashion," why do the dozen recordings of the Brandenburg concertos, for example, that have been in my ears so much lately -- all by HIP ensembles -- sound so different from one another?

Minkowski's interpretations of these late Haydn symphonies, even with the slight imperfections of live performance, are certainly rewarding listening, alongside some other relatively recent HIP Haydn, by Tafelmusik (Bruno Weil, Sony Vivarte) and the Freiburger Barockorchester (Gottfried von der Goltz, Harmonia Mundi), for example, if not so much the somewhat older Academy of Ancient Music (Christopher Hogwood, L'Oiseau-Lyre). Besides the infamous surprise of no. 94, there is a delightful, particularly flatulent low C in the bassoon, marked ff, in the Largo of no. 93 (at bar 80 in the Robbins Landon edition) -- given such eructative prominence in this performance perhaps because Minkowski got his start in the early music movement as a bassoonist. As expected, he includes harpsichord only in no. 98, which has a specific part for the instrument -- the part marked "Cembalo" appears only in the final two pages of the symphony, played here on a very tinkly instrument (and/or registration). As Manfred Angerer notes in the comprehensive liner essay, Haydn presided at the first performances of these symphonies in London from the keyboard but did not conduct or even play, except for this brief moment in no. 98. Nevertheless, Minkowski has his harpsichordist, Mathieu Dupouy, improvise a continuo-style realization throughout the piece.

With a limited orchestration (by later standards), Haydn is able to create so many different colors and textures. With the goal of diverting his London audience's ears, he does resort to some tricks, like reducing the texture of the last movement of no. 98 to a solo string quintet (violin solo, for Salomon, plus string quartet) in the development and allowing them to inaugurate the recapitulation. (Following the critical edition of Robbins Landon, Minkowski also features a solo cellist in the slow movement of no. 102.) Minkowski goes with the spirit of variety, not remaining content with that sometimes precious HIP kind of sound, instead encouraging the trumpets, horns, and percussion to punch up the dynamic contrasts -- as in the opening of no. 104 -- and spice up the "Military" symphony. Timpanist Sylvain Bertrand even indulges in an extended improvisation on the two "drumrolls" of no. 103, and Minkowski has the contrabassi rattle away violently at the bottom of the page in some places. The result is a recording of effervescent vitality (only rarely did Minkowski seem to bite off more than his ensemble could chew, as in the over-fast finale of no. 101). This is not perhaps enough to entice someone already in possession of a complete Haydn symphony set, but it is a very good place to begin one's appreciation of Haydn.

1 comment:

Bill H. said...

I haven't yet heard the Minkowski "London" set. I have the Dorati, Brueggen, and Jochum sets and love them all, along with miscellaneous individual Londons with other groups.

Interesting that you should mention the use of a continuo keyboard in Minkowski's #98. Jochum's earlier stereo traversal with the Berlin Philharmonic (recorded in the early 60s?!) has a harpsichord continuo throughout the movements. Every other recording I've heard only has it show up at the end of the finale.

The string quartet shtick shows up elsewhere too--the very beginning of the slow movement of #93, where the initial statement of the theme is done by just the four strings.

Finally, I agree with you about HIPster musicians having a leg up on knowing an improvisatory approach to their repertoire. My son played at the Oberlin Conservatory's Baroque Performance Institute this summer, and I saw that learning how to ornament and improvise is a huge part of playing the repertoire, especially for 17th century music. This is simply because the written notes are often so skeletal looking on the page in many of those works.

Still, I can agree with the notion that modern orchestras should not shy away from Bach and Handel, let alone Haydn or Mozart. It didn't stop a conductor of the versatility of a Charles MacKerras (RIP). Let a thousand interpretations bloom....