Occasionally, I'd catch sight of Simon Rattle in Birmingham's Botanical Gardens of a Sunday Morning. (It's probably the Zoologischer Garten for him nowadays). I always felt an urge to ask him about his previous recording of Haydn's Symphony 90 (1990, CBSO, EMI), in which an otherwise impeccable performance was 'spoilt' by the opening chord, lazily staggered. It couldn't possibly have been written like this, could it? I've since learnt that indeed it was.
Perfectly good versions of these symphonies exist elsewhere, of course. Those by La Petite Bande under Sigiswald Kuijken, for example. (Likewise Rattle's previous Symphony 90, coupled with 60 and 70.) But you always expect something different, and something enhancing, from Rattle. Truth be told, there is little revolutionary about these live recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic. CD1 offers a 'bonus' track by way of alternative finales for Symphony 90 - one with audience reaction (premature applause followed by laughter at the recognition of their mistake) and for those for whom the 'joke' has worn thin, another ending played without interruption.
But even though Rattle does nothing absolutely radical, his attention to detail is meticulous. The occasional grace note here - sparing but telling - an unexpected drum-roll there. With spirited, invigorating playing, he manages to make the most of what can sound a little routine. It is the last movement of No 90, so anti-climactic in other versions, that finally 'makes sense'. Here, with its brisk tempo and utter conviction, it's probably the most engaging track of all.
Rattle is probably at his most inspired with Nos. 88 and 89, two of the least-performed late symphonies, sitting in relative obscurity between the great Paris and London cycles. The Minuet of 88 is sprightly and appealing - not at all as pedestrian as it can be. Its curious Trio section, with imitation bagpipes, is enlivened by the hurrying of some entries, creating interesting rhythmic tension in the process - Rattle's modernist influence showing through, perhaps.
Rattle is on record as saying that he considers Haydn 'our greatest neglected composer'. Despite his reputation for bringing contemporary music to the forefront, Rattle has always been a keen advocate of Haydn and this double CD suggests a real affinity with him. For my money, Rattle is the leading interpreter of Haydn's later symphonies along with Frans Bruggen.