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A recording that does no favours either to Haydn, or Colin Davis
on 29 July 2014
Colin Davis regularly confronted his younger recorded self during his final decade, re-recording on the LSO live label almost all the Berlioz repertoire he had previously pioneered on Philips, but to very muted applause from critics. Here we have the bones (the "Oxford" Symphony and four London symphonies) of what would have presumably have been, had he lived longer, a complete remake of the late Haydn symphonies. His earlier Haydn cycle (also live recordings) was a regular best-version choice and is the obvious comparison to make with the present set.
Put on any of those 1980's Concertgebouw discs and it is immediately obvious that not a thing has changed interpretatively in thirty years. Davis went on disregarding new editions of the symphonies and the lessons of historically-informed performance, and he produced no new wisdom of his own. Even the groaning is much the same. It is also obvious that the old recordings were far better than the new from a technical point of view, and that the Concertgebouw then were much the better band. We have to listen to the contemporary LSO through an aural murk, struggling to hear any detail in the tuttis. What we can hear is not rewarding. They sound dutiful at best, and completely lost at worst - bars of the 98th's slow movement pass by as they try to catch up with each other.
I suppose these discs were released for strictly commercial reasons. I think it's a shame that such a decision was made; it does no favours either to Haydn or to the memory of Davis.
The one positive thing I can think of to say about this sort of resolutely old-fashioned interpretation is that it lets us hear Haydn played by a really big band, one about the size he had available during his second London visit. Most modern performances are by much smaller groups, and are probably rather over-interpreted (historically speaking) as a result. But if you want such an approach, better go the first Davis cycle on Philips, or better still try Bernstein or Karajan, who were just naturally old-world, unlike Davis who made a self-conscious choice to ignore the results of historical research he did not like. To hear a thoroughly modern version you could do a lot worse than the recent Thomas Fey recording of the 99th & 100th symphonies. The end of Fey's 99th will leave you cheering (and cheerful) which is more than you can say of the LSO live account.