More and more back catalogue material is being released, often in very affordable multiple CD sets. But in spite of the mystique associated with great names in the conductor canon, when compared to the leading modern practitioners, many of these so-called great conductors are seriously overrated.
As Rene Jacobs recently pointed out, period-instrument-informed practice -“ whether played on so-called authentic instruments or not -“ is now the mainstream classical music practice. Jacobs and others are building a genuinely new approach to both old and new music, which draws on a range of traditions.
Two new re-releases provide an opportunity to assess how two of the great conductors approach Haydn, a composer who has also been well served by the period instrument brigade.
HAYDN: LONDON SYMPHONIES [Georg Solti/London Symphony]
I’ve never bothered to listen to much of Georg Solti and after sampling his approach to Haydn I won’t be chasing up his back catalogue. This is not to say that I am completely oblivious to his charms. His symphonic sound is full of great energy and his control can be mesmerising at times. But there is something almost brutal in his wall of sound approach that seems to me to be inimical to the delicate way that Haydn builds such delightful melodic structures.
HAYDN: SYMPHONIES/CREATION [Leonard Bernstein Complete DG Recordings]
Leonard Bernstein’s work as a conductor does not fall easily into neat categorisation. He was famously manic and charming and in his early career condemned by critics as lacking classical seriousness. But it is this very spritely individuality that makes his music not perfect but great. His 1960 recordings of Haydn were hailed even by his detractors and marked the moment when the musical establishment began to take him more seriously. These DG symphony recordings were completed in the late 1980s and feature the mature Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic. What a combination! The magic of the Vienna strings is fully liberated by Bernstein’s individual touch and although he often employs a big massed sound he manages to imbue it with the subtlety that Haydn deserves.
Bernstein’s The Creation has some great singing but it’s here that the period conductors (either John Eliot Gardiner’s classic recording or Rene Jacobs’s magnificent recent release) beat even this great old-timer hands down. For a period approach to the symphonies try Bruno Weil and Tafelmusik.