Haydn died in 1809, so his bicentenary looks like a good moment for us to fill in some gaps in our collections of his output. I already own on LP these performances of symphonies 93 and 94, but 97 and 98 have been a lacuna all these years, so better late than never. However I have done more than just fill a gap, because what I have now acquired is half a dozen of the finest Haydn renderings I think I am ever likely to hear.
The performances date back to the 50's, but right from the time of his Delius recordings twenty years before that Beecham had nearly always secured the best sound that the contemporary technology admitted, and the quality on these two discs gets no complaints from me. The sound has been digitally remastered, albeit not in stereo, and I could not care less as regards the latter. What matters much more to me is that the sheer quality of tone that was such a hallmark of everything Beecham did comes across very effectively here. The orchestral balance is just about perfect, and I think you will never sense even a suspicion of the timpani noise getting out of hand. I suppose that the style of interpretation is not bang up-to-date. There is not a first movement repeat observed anywhere, and nary a Hoboken number is invoked either. Another issue to which I am transcendentally indifferent is first movement repeats, I have never acquainted myself with the Hoboken catalogue either, so Beecham gets another pass from me on both scores. In any case the issue of `authenticity' is far less important in Haydn or Mozart than it is in Handel or Bach. Beecham does not use contemporary instruments, but the orchestra here does not sound particularly large to me, and string solos are played as solos and not by the entire band. Nor have the purists demanded speed records in playing Haydn the way they often do where Bach is concerned, and one thing that strikes me with enormous force in listening to these two wonderful discs is a sense of sheer rightness in Beecham's choice of tempi. The matter points up certain characteristics of Beecham as an interpreter, and even more importantly it sheds a very special kind of light on the composer.
Haydn's particular enthusiasts are often anxiously concerned to assert their idol's status among the great composers. I suppose in a way that it is almost unjust that so great a composer should be so closely contemporary with one who is even greater, but in the parade I find myself putting up of issues that are of no importance to me, here is another. I could not care less who is `greater' than who else, and I am not even visited by thoughts of such a nature when I listen to what I have here. There is a cliché that I need here and it is that this music, played like this, is life-enhancing. For that the prime credit must go to Haydn, or to whatever source there may have been of his musical inspiration in some realm above and beyond. Music in one sense exists only in performance, but there is a sense also whereby a Platonic Idea of Music, an entity that defines and transcends all real and all possible musical ideas expressed by whatever composer, makes itself felt through some interpreters in a special way. It is this sense of Music that, for me, shines through the work of Thomas Beecham more than through the agency of any other conductor. The alternative versions that I own of symphonies 94 95 and 96 are from no mean maestri. No. 94 is from Toscanini, his virtues (unrecognised of course by Beecham) are well known, and the style is too dissimilar for comparison. My version of no. 95 is from Britten at one of his Aldeburgh festivals, and it has the unique interest of letting us hear one great composer interpreting another. In the trio of the minuet Britten even surpasses Beecham in my opinion, and the rendering as a whole has power dignity stature and everything else one would want. Britten even observes the first movement repeat, for the benefit of any whose aesthetic judgment is more influenced by that feature than mine is. This minor-key work is also not the most typical of the later Haydn symphonies, but even here there is, for me, an indefinable quality of magic from Beecham that not even Britten quite equals. The case of no. 96 is the most interesting of all. My other version is from Previn, on an LP with no. 88. This disc marks out Previn for me as Beecham's owne sonne as a Haydn interpreter, and his no. 88 in particular is the best Haydn symphony performance, other than from Beecham himself, that I know. No. 96 is nearly as good, it runs Beecham as close as any, but just hear the long woodwind trills at the end of the slow movement to find a specific illustration of the difference between Beecham and anyone else.
Haydn's bicentenary has brought me this blessing so far. My collection of his symphonies to date includes all the final 6, 99-104, and not a bad performance among them. I think I still have world enough and time to add Beecham's special insights to what others have already bestowed on me. It's something I now want to do, because never in my lengthening life, throughout which I have been a strong enthusiast for Haydn, can I ever recall his music having so much to say to me as it has here.