September 2005

Haydn - "Paris" Symphonies (Nos. 82-87)
Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt cond.
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 82876-60602-2
Released: 2005
Format: CD

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who can seem wayward at times, is at his most persuasive in these large-scale performances of the six "Paris" symphonies. He takes all of Haydn’s usually ignored repeats, and that is no perfunctory gesture. Every bar is filled with character and conviction and brims over with the wit, color and endless inventiveness that accounted for Haydn’s great reputation in his own time and sustains it in ours. While revealing possibly unexpected levels of depth, Harnoncourt is canny enough to recognize the part that charm plays in this music, and to judge how well that element can take care of itself when the conductor isn’t foolish enough to think it needs a boost.

Grace and substance go hand-in-hand here, even in the finale of No.82 ("The Bear") and the barnyard clucking of No.83 ("The Hen"). No.86, perhaps as great a symphony as Haydn or anyone else composed before Beethoven gave us the "Eroica," growls, sings, broods and exults in confident self-awareness. Personally, I’m not about to discard the earlier sets under Bernstein, Dutoit, Leslie Jones, Karajan or Sigiswald Kuijken. "Infinite variety" is not an empty phrase when applied to Haydn, and Harnoncourt complements these other conductors’ achievements (in the strongest sense) rather than replaces them.

His repeats mean three CDs here instead of the customary two for the "Paris" set, but DHM has thoughtfully offered "three for the price of two." The sound is rich, full-bodied and clearly defined, well tailored to these fascinating works and to these particular performances of them.