An unexpected and wonderful bonus to Colin Davis’s discography, and with a composer whose music he loved. Such affection is immediately established with the beginning of the irrepressible ‘Oxford’ Symphony through a slow introduction that is both meaningfully moulded and beautifully sounded. The high spirits of the Allegro then have a real sense of joy; the tempo is moderate, to ensure clarity of phrase and inner parts, and there is a feeling that there is no greater music, Davis’s smiling, dancing and twinkle-in-the-eye approach is a tonic, the LSO responding with alacrity. And that’s just the first movement of No 92. Its Adagio cantabile is most eloquent, the following Minuet weighty, its Trio laconic, and the finale fleet, without crashing through the speed limit, and witty.
Strength and vitality also play a part in Davis’s wholly-engaging conceptions. No 93 (the first of the 12 ‘London’ Symphonies) bubbles along happily, with a contented swing and crisp rhythms. The slow movement is tenderly introduced, and gets a bit rude later on (as bassoonists will know!). Davis then drives the marvellous Minuet on, one of Haydn’s most robust, and its Trio is fuelled by trumpet fanfares. The finale scampers home with shape and clarity. There is some splendidly clear and dynamic timpani-playing in this work from Sam Walton; unfortunately he doesn’t contribute to the other four Symphonies, where the drums can be soggy.
With Symphony No 97 – something of a ‘Cinderella’ in the Haydn canon – Davis once again lifts the rhythms, ensures all of the composer’s surprises are delightfully shared, that contrasts are vivid, and that the work’s sophistication remains intact; the country-bumpkin of a Trio has a particular sway of pleasure. With Symphonies 98 and 99, these large-scale darlings are in the best of hands, Davis digging deep into their gravitas and impish ingenuities. In 98 there is a harpsichord continuo throughout (if a rather shy one) rather than ‘just’ for the instrument’s solo near the end of the agile and ebullient finale (given without the exposition repeat); John Constable does the honours. Symphony No 99 is suitably regal (and this is the first of Haydn’s Symphonies to make use of the richer timbres of clarinets), the slow introduction rather monastic in its unhurried heralding of the puckish, curvy and bouncy Allegro. The Adagio is gloriously spacious, the following Minuet has a spring in its step (its Trio so expressive) and the finale, time-taken, has the feel of crowning achievement.
The recorded sound is excellent, and final applause has been removed. This is a release to treasure for great music and magnificent readings of it (and one doesn't forget Sir Colin's previous Haydn Symphonies, like tulips, from Amsterdam) ….. and the front cover is quite striking in a feel-good way. Believe me, a couple of hours spent in the company of “Papa” Haydn and with a conductor who tapped so perceptively and benevolently into this imaginative and indestructible music (and which is so adaptable to a devoted and without-dogma approach, as here) makes the World a better place.