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More than any other composer of the 18th Century,
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) set the template for the
musical form we refer to today as the “Symphony.” Others
before him, such as Giovanni Batista Sammartini (1701-1775),
Georg Matthias Monn (1717-1750) and Carl Philipp Stamitz
(1745-1801) had written some, along with
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788). However, it’s safe to
say that it was Haydn, along with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(1756-1791) who developed the symphonic form to its apex,
during the late 18th Century.

I’ve just finished listening to Ádám Fischer’s traversal of all
106 Haydn Symphonies, plus the “Sinfonia Concertante,”
performed by the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra. These
pieces were recorded over a 14-year period, beginning in the
late 1980’s and released on 33 CDs under the Brilliant
Classics label, licensed from Nimbus Records. As noted in the
accompanying booklet, this orchestra consists of the finest
musicians from Austria and Hungary, many of whom are
members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the
Vienna Symphony and the Hungarian State Symphony. These
groups are assembled with the “ . . . dual aim of performing
Haydn’s works in the places he lived and worked . . . “

Hearing this entire oeuvre in chronological order afforded me with
an ideal opportunity to chart the course of Haydn’s development
for more than 35 years, between 1757 and 1795. However,
it should be noted that the exact date of Haydn’s first symphonic
composition has not been definitively established. While I’d heard
many of these Symphonies prior to beginning this project,
I’d never attempted to experience them as an entire corpus.
A wealth of surprises and discoveries awaited me!

Contrary to my long-held belief, these works weren’t as
“generic” as I’d thought. I noted quite a bit of variety, in terms
of the number of movements per piece, the instrumentation and
their overall character. Haydn was isolated while ensconced at
Esterházy and he liked to say that he was therefore
“ . . . forced to become original . . .” which is reflected in many
of these Symphonies.

The biggest surprises for me were found in some of Haydn’s
earlier and middle Symphonies, as he progressed toward his
“Paris” and “London” Symphonies, written during the 1780’s
and 1790’s. The entire oeuvre is liberally peppered with
examples of his famed sense of humor, which was often
achieved with instruments that were then considered to be
novelties. The extreme virtuosity required from the string
players is also noteworthy, especially when you realize that
there are few heavy orchestrations and advanced harmonies
to “hide” behind. I also discovered a few instances in
which the horns were required to play in their extreme upper
ranges. These are just a few of my observations. Despite the
large number of Haydn Symphonies composed, if you’ve
heard a few, you definitely haven’t heard them all!

Although the Symphonies were originally numbered from
one to 104, other pieces that were initially classified as Chamber
works and composed during the late 1750’s were added to the
canon, as Symphonies “A” and “B.” Furthermore, it should be
noted that the numbering didn’t necessarily correspond to an
exact chronology, as it was added much later. At any rate, the
works on these discs were arranged somewhat chronologically
as noted above, thereby allowing me to develop a new-found
respect and appreciation for this Master.

I can heartily recommend these recordings, both in terms of
sound engineering and artistic interpretation. It would seem
that the stylistic elements are part of the “musical DNA” of
these orchestral players and for the most part,
Maestro Fischer (1949 – ) does a fine job at the podium.
I’m not going to play the comparison game with other sets,
such as those by Antal Doráti (1906-1988) or
Dennis Russell Davies (1944 – ) which I haven’t heard, and I
suppose the Fischer discs will not be all things to all listeners,
but as an integral set, you could do a lot worse! I’ll leave it
to others to draw the contrasts between performances,
while I move onward to other works from different composers.