Twenty or so years ago, Adam Fischer recorded Haydn’s ‘Surprise Symphony’ at the start of a cycle of the composer’s complete symphonies. Listening to him revisit it now on a new hybrid multichannel CD/SACD from Musikproduktion Dabringhaus and Grimm, you might find that what was once a polite, mildly surprising loud chord in the slow movement is now a lightning-sharp smack upside the head. This touch is typical of the evolution Fischer’s Haydn has undergone over the years. Indeed, the conductor’s gradual adoption of historically-informed performance practices could be traced throughout the vast Nimbus project of recording Haydn’s complete symphonies. Fischer started off rather mainstream, with discreet and polite performances featuring leisurely tempos and vibrato in the string playing. His combination of relentless study and greater familiarity with the irrepressible composer’s sense of invention has led Fischer to reexamine his conception of these works, bringing new vitality and a much more aggressive edge to these performances, which not only supersede his earlier efforts, they also leap past other reliable recordings from period groups, such as Christopher Hogwood’s recording with the Academy of Ancient Music (on L’Oiseau-Lyre) or Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande (on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi), as well as making older modern instrument recordings such as Antal Dorбti with the Philharmonia Hungarica (on Decca) or George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (on Columbia, now Sony) look staid in comparison.
But it would be wrong to imply that Fischer has merely checked out the competition and one-upped them in stylishness. Rather, what he has learned and gradually accepted about historically-informed performance is made an integral part of an already solidly musical background. In short, Fischer’s extensive exploration of the composer’s music gives him an overall concept which he consistently applies to illuminate these works. Fischer starts the ‘Surprise Symphony’ serenely, but he plays up the contrast by leaping into a punchy and vigorous allegro that makes Hogwood and Kuijken seem rather laid-back. Fans of the starchiness of period instrument strings may miss that element in Fischer’s modern instruments, but he has the Haydn Philharmonic play vigorously with a minimum of vibrato, providing the listener with purity of tone and smoothness of texture. For the actual “surprise” movement, Fischer mercifully flows things along, coming in almost a minute faster than the self-conscious pace that Kuijken sets. As noted above, Fischer’s fortissimo “surprise” is a shocker, as loud and crisp as possible. Comparatively, Hogwood seems demure and Kuijken ponderous. In terms of vigor and crispness, the only previous record that comes anywhere close to showing such extreme contrast is the fine recording of the ‘Surprise’ which George Szell made with the Cleveland Orchestra back in the 1960’s for Columbia. But even that vigorous thwack of the drum pales in comparison to Fischer’s gleeful onslaught. The only timpani hit I could really compare it to is the famous fortissimo drum attack which starts the scherzo section of the slow movement of Berwald’s ‘Sinfonie Singuliиre’ as recorded in 1955 for Deutsche Grammophon by Igor Markevitch and the Berlin Philharmonic. That drum punch was capable of blowing cheap speakers in its day, and Fischer’s goes well beyond it in power. Of course, such an attack begs the question, “Would Haydn have done it that way?” The answer is, of course, probably not. But if that’s what we have to do in our jaded modern world to give that moment the psychological impact it must have had on the first audience, then I’m all for it.
Fischer’s account of the minuet of the ‘Surprise Symphony’ brings some mannered touches, with a choppy, held-back lead in to the theme every time it returns, as well as some fussy phrasing. Nonetheless, it is a suitably rambunctious take on the movement, even if it is a little too coiffed to have the country dance flavor that the score implies. In the trio, Fischer interestingly opts to have the string parts played by the leaders of each section instead of by the entire sections, an effect I don’t recall hearing elsewhere. Neither the Kalmus nor the Dover editions of the score call for solo strings, but then again, Fischer’s phrasing in the minuet is at variance with these printed scores as well. Perhaps he is working from a different edition. If nothing else, it can be chalked up as an unhistorical but delectable touch, rather like the fortepiano continuo heard in Hogwood’s recording. Fischer’s finale is deft and vigorous, with plenty of attention paid to sharpening contrasts.
For the ‘Symphony No.92’, the so-called “Oxford” symphony, I compared Fischer with two other modern instrument recordings, Sir Colin Davis with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Philips, and Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon. Both Davis and Bernstein launch the symphony with indulgent warmth, particularly so Bernstein. Davis at least remains more probing in his directionality. Fischer is cooler than either of the older maestros, focusing his attention on the groping about for the line of thought which leads from the introduction into the allegro. Each conductor’s starting point determines the lay of his first movement: Bernstein’s “Allegro spiritoso” is genial, Davis’ is cheerful but clear, and Fischer’s is crisp and energetic. In the slow movement, Davis goes for lofty serenity interrupted by stern intrusions. Bernstein is lush and lyrical with a positively Beethovenian lurch into the contrasting middle section. Fischer is refreshingly simple and flowing in the early part of the movement, and he does not telegraph what is about to happen before the middle section leaps upon us. Again, he plays it for surprise and shock, and it works marvelously. Fischer almost matches Davis for bumptious characterization in the minuet, although the particular balances of the Philips recording make the horn and bassoon chords of the trio more pungent in Davis’ recording. Bernstein is out of the running in that movement as he is ponderous in the minuet, and mutes his horns in the trio. Fischer is wickedly fast and witty in the finale of ‘Symphony No.92’, though Davis and Bernstein aren’t far behind in the fun.
The recorded sound of this hybrid Compact Disc/Super Audio Compact Disc is very nice, though it doesn’t quite have the tangible clarity of some of MDG’s finest discs. Perhaps that is a feature of the recording venue, the Stefaniensaal in Graz, Austria. Incidentally, the photograph on the back cover of the booklet pictures the orchestra in the Haydn-Saal in the Esterhбzy Castle, which is where their Haydn cycle for Nimbus was recorded. The Haydn Hall is small, and the Nimbus recordings tend to be very closely miked, leaving a wash of reverb in the background, with restricted dynamic range in the foreground. By recording in the much more airy and open Stefaniensaal, the MDG engineers have distanced themselves from the sonic profile of the Nimbus cycle. In this larger hall, they were able to opt for a more distant microphone placement, which assures maximum dynamic range, which helps this music make its impact. One could argue, though, that the distance here is just a little bit too much of a good thing, losing the edge of texture and detail that also helps this music make its impact. Let us hope that if they record more with Fischer and the Haydn Philharmonic that the engineers will move those microphones in just a hair closer, without moving close up as the Nimbus engineers did. Nonetheless, the sound is attractive, with fine depths of space around the orchestra and reasonably clear sense of directionality to the sounds emanating from the speakers. The multichannel mix brings one forward into the sound without drawing attention to itself, except in the brilliant moment discussed below. The standard Compact Disc layer is clear and suave without the glare of many digital recordings, but the sense of texture increases noticeably with the stereo high-resolution layer, and more so yet with the multichannel layer. Interestingly, though, MDG does not offer any information about the resolution-level of their recording technology, nor the equipment they used. Surely a little more information would please the technology fans who might potentially buy such a recording. And let’s not forget that as with many of the label’s titles, in addition to 5.1, this disc also contains a version of the recording with MDG’s 2+2+2 non-standard channel assignment, which employs what would usually be the centre and LFE as an additional pair of front channels mounted above the usual left/right pair, although that configuration was not evaluated as part of this review.
In addition to the symphonies, the disc also contains a sprightly performance of the overture to Haydn’s opera “La Fedeltа Premiata” (“Fidelity Rewarded”). Anyone who knows Haydn’s ‘Symphony No.73’ (“La Chasse”) will recognize it as the finale of said work. It was an overture first, though, evoking the rural setting of the opera with the same hunting horn calls which gave the symphony its name. The horn calls become true delights near the end of the overture when they suddenly appear in a ring around the listener, coming from the surround channels as well as on stage, a wonderful use of the technology for an attractively piquant offstage effect. One does have to wonder, though, with a playing time of only fifty-one minutes, why the entire ‘Symphony No.73’ wasn’t recorded for this release. The short playing time is the single biggest thing going against this issue, especially when considering the fact that Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm does not have one of the cheaper list prices for their releases, either!
Nonetheless, this is a quality disc and it is simply far too fine to let it pass. It is an easy recommendation for this repertory in multichannel sound, as there isn’t a great deal of competition yet (though it may come soon from Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Thomas Fey, who have both recorded excellent Haydn recently), but even if competitors do pop up soon, these are vivid performances under the baton of one of our finest Haydn pioneers, and they will hold up well against any competition. For that reason, too, they are also warmly recommended for regular Compact Disc listeners. Antal Dorбti was the first major conductor to explore the complete symphonies of Haydn. He began his task in the 1970’s and only Adam Fischer has taken up the challenge on the same scale since then to explore and record the entire body of this master’s endlessly inventive symphonies. That we now have the opportunity to hear Fischer revisit some key works after having absorbed the entire set and bring his insights to bear in high-quality multichannel sound is a blessing indeed. No fan of Haydn will want to miss this release, and if you haven’t yet delved into Haydn, isn’t it about time you started?