One of the more plausible explanations as to why this, of all the last twelve symphonies, became known as the ‘London’ is that the main theme of the finale reminded listeners of a London street-cry to the words ‘Live cod!’. The slow introduction of the ‘Drumroll’ might have seemed an impossible act to follow. Yet No 104’s D minor opening rivals it in tension and mystery, evoking a cosmic vastness within its two-minute time frame. The Allegro resolves minor into major with a heart-easing melody. This tune returns, varied, as a ‘second subject’; and there is another delightful variation, airily scored for flute and oboes, at the beginning of the recapitulation. The magnificent development is perhaps the most powerful and rigorous in all Haydn’s symphonies, worrying obsessively at a six-note fragment of the theme and building inexorably to a climax of white-hot intensity.
The tranquil opening of the G major Andante is deceptive. The second half of the melody expands with an unsuspected breadth and profundity, while the ferocity of the G minor central episode eclipses even the comparable outburst in the Andante of the ‘Clock’. But the apotheosis comes after the varied reprise of the opening tune, where the music floats towards unearthly tonal regions before slipping magically back to the home key. The final bars, as so often in these late slow movements, are suffused with a nostalgic, valedictory glow.
The boisterous minuet trades on aggressive offbeat accents and rude dynamic contrasts. There is a typical Haydnesque joke when the laughing trill that ends the first half later breaks off for two bars of silence and then re-enters in a conspiratorial piano. After all this fooling Haydn begins the pastoral trio with a more subtle joke, feinting at D minor before opting for a more remote key, B flat major. While the finale’s main theme, announced over a rustic drone, evoked ‘Live cod!’ to early London audiences, its origin has also been traced to a Croatian folk tune. Offsetting the swashbuckling energy is a yearning contrasting theme in sustained notes, of a kind unique in Haydn’s finales. This melody reappears near the end of the development, where it seems to become hypnotized. Then, with a breathtaking harmonic sideslip, the recapitulation takes us unawares—perhaps the subtlest transition in all Haydn, at once witty and poignant. True to form, the composer continues to mine the potential of the opening folk tune, right through to an incandescent coda which Brahms—a fervent champion of Haydn’s music—was to remember in the finale of his own D major symphony, No 2.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2009