Haydn: Symphonies 88, 101 & 104 / McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque

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There are no finer period-instrument Haydn symphony performances available than these. Using a nearly 50-piece orchestra (thank God!), McGegan captures the music's full grandeur as...
There are no finer period-instrument Haydn symphony performances available than these. Using a nearly 50-piece orchestra (thank God!), McGegan captures the music's full grandeur as well as its intimacy. These players sound like a real orchestra, a group with a corporate identity, an attractive ensemble sonority, superb wind soloists, and, miracle of miracles, period strings that don't sound like a den of dying cats. McGegan's phrasing of the "clock" theme in the eponymous symphony's second movement is a model of stylishness and wit--listen and I dare you not to smile.

His pacing throughout is ideal; allegros are swift but not so much as to blur characterful detail. The minuets are perfect; trumpets and drums cut through the texture without turning crude; tuttis really fill the acoustic space, and the dynamic range is aptly wide. No performance of these works follows Haydn's dynamic markings literally, but McGegan's adjustments flow with the music and invariably come across as natural--check out the finale of the "London" Symphony for some particularly telling examples.

The live sonics are generally very good, particularly given the fact that the recordings were made over a three-year period (2007-9). In Symphony No. 88 close miking makes the sound a touch rough in places, and I could do without the applause at the end of each work, but the audience otherwise is extremely well-behaved and extraneous performance noises are happily quite minimal. We need Haydn recordings like this: warm, humorous, affecting, yet fully cognizant of period scholarship and style. They are far too rare.

– David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com


HAYDN Symphonies: No. 104, “London”; No. 88; No. 101, “Clock” Nicholas McGegan, cond; Philharmonia Baroque O PHILHARMONIA BAROQUE PBP-02 (75:16) Live: Berkeley, CA 2/10–11/2007, 11/15–16/2008; 9/12–13/2009

Nicholas McGegan and his San Francisco period-instrument ensemble are renowned for their many Handel recordings, but they play music of all eras. This is the first Haydn I’ve heard from them. This 2007 performance of the “London” Symphony is marvelous: The opening Adagio-Allegro brims over with high spirits, highlighted by blazing brass and pounding timpani; the Menuet has grace as well as bounce (McGegan does not play da capo repeats), and the Trio has a delicious lilt, with the merest hint of a luftpause in measure three. The finale is somewhat rough and ready, but its Spiritoso direction is fully realized. Comparisons with other performances do reveal a few shortcomings. As used to be the case in period ensembles, violins are rather dull; those in Richard Hickox’s Collegium Musicum 90 are clean and bright. Hickox’s forces are also better balanced and recorded (by Chandos); McGegan’s woodwinds are often drowned out by screaming trumpets. However, the Hickox has nowhere near the drive and élan of this performance. Nor can McGegan’s strings match the crisp attacks and phenomenal execution of either Colin Davis’s Concertgebouw or Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic.

The opening Allegro of No. 88 goes beautifully; the movement has no trumpets or timpani. Violins are brighter in 2008, as is the recorded sound. The Largo, however, is a disaster. Bassoons are weak; even when the pair shares the solo line, they are nearly inaudible. Taken even faster (5:30) than the impatient George Szell (5:53), this performance totally misses the movement’s calm beauty. Largos are always difficult; holding the line at a very slow tempo takes enormous concentration and ensemble discipline. Hermann Scherchen almost manages, at a lumbering 10:04; Bernstein’s 7:04 is ideal, in a uniquely lovely rendering. McGegan’s Menuet is back on track; his slow Allegretto works well. The Allegro con spirito finale, again reasonably paced, is also a success—until the coda. In this live performance, McGegan (adrenaline kicking in?) ups the tempo at the last minute, and the final three chords are smudged. Bernstein opts for a ludicrously fast tempo; his virtuoso ensemble pulls it off.

The “Clock” gets a fine performance at mostly consensus tempos; the 2009 sound (they were all at the same site, the First Congregational Church in Berkeley) is more reverberant than before but very well balanced. The Andante is too fast; is McGegan, like Szell, allergic to slow music? The bassoons revive here, but oboe and flute are a bit sour together. Menuet and Finale are magnificent; the wrong-note trumpet joke sounds cleanly, the clarinet-brightened score resounds, and this time the final three chords are crisp.

Good period performances of late Haydn symphonies have been hard to come by. This disc ranks among the best.

FANFARE: James H. North
"...Nicholas McGegan has been honing the San Francisco-based period-instrument Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra for some 25 years. Nor are performances of Haydn’s music in period style anything new. But seldom have his elemental dynamic contrasts sounded so properly in proportion or so mercurial, with the 50 or so players able to play out lustily in fortes and pull back quickly to quieter modes, whether playful, subtle or mysterious...The recordings, made at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, Calif., from 2007 to 2009, were beautifully produced and engineered by David v. R. Bowles...The release of cumulative excitement at the end of each [symphony] is of a kind that tends to happen only in live circumstances."

- James R. Oestreich, The New York Times [June 24, 2011]

Product Description:

  • Release Date: July 15, 2015

  • UPC: 852188003027

  • Catalog Number: PBP02

  • Label: Philharmonia Baroque

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: ""

  • Composer: Franz Joseph Haydn

  • Conductor: Nicholas McGegan

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

  • Performer: Mcgegan