This big box from Eloquence offers Neville Marriner's Haydn Symphonies for Philips in the late '70s/early '80s. And what a glorious collection it is! This is Marriner at his very happiest. He obviously loved Haydn and a joyous outpouring is apparent everywhere. One laments that he (and Philips) didn't commit to recording all of them. But we can be grateful for the ones we do have.
These are fresh, alert, crisp and lovely readings of the 33 "named" symphonies. Tempos are perfectly chosen throughout - not only in the swift, vivacious outer movements, but also in the quick, smiling Allegrettos and Menuets, which simply bubble with charm and joy. And, mercifully, Adagios (and Andantes) never drag, but move along with a natural singing momentum which feels just right. The size of this chamber orchestra is perfectly suited for this music, and the acoustics of the various halls in which the recording sessions took place are consistently pleasing.
Eloquence lists a remastering engineer for this reissue. So I dutifully compared a couple Paris Symphonies back-to-back with my 1993 Philips Duo release. (Specifically #82 & 83, as #84, 86-7 are DDD.) The sound between the two is very close but subtly freshened on the newer issue. It is just slightly cleaner, brighter and airier, with a better front-to-back definition of the orchestral ranks layered back into the hall. However, I emphasize it is a very subtle difference, likely not even noticeable on all but the very best stereo systems (or perhaps on high-quality headphones).
Regardless, the remastered analog sound is consistently excellent - clean, warm and positively gorgeous, but not too rich or reverberant. In addition to the crisp articulation, just listen to the slow movements in the earlier symphonies (pre-Paris), especially those which use muted strings. What ravishing, positively creamy violin sound! Oh my goodness, it is absolutely delectable. So is the vibrant flute sound. (I smiled seeing in the booklet William Bennett, one of my favorite flutists ever, listed as soloist in at least one symphony, and I wonder if he was also the principal flutist in many of these sessions.)
I could listen to this orchestra all day long and never tire of the beauty of it - especially the strings. And actually, getting through this box set, I did just that! It's worth noting, however, the few digital recordings from 1981 are slightly leaner and less glowing - to be expected from early digital.
Eloquence gathers these recordings together for the first time, in the original layout, using the original album cover art. However, there are significant drawbacks to this lovely idea. It means an outlay of 15 CDs, most with just 2 symphonies and an average playing time of about 40-50 minutes each. Thus it's a great big box to find room for on the shelf, containing many more CDs than was necessary.
Worse, the Symphonies are not in chronological order. (Not even all the Paris Symphonies are grouped together.) Instead they are laid out over the multitude of CDs more-or-less in the order in which they were originally released and coupled. I would have preferred the discs to be filled up (thus making the box half as big), with the Symphonies presented in numerical order for easy access and convenience. But that's just me.
I can't really fault Eloquence for doing this. It seems to be all the rage these days and all the major labels are doing it. And Decca just can't resist jumping on the bandwagon. I personally don't understand the reasoning behind it - making a set with as many CDs as possible when virtually no one is buying CDs these days. (And many labels are transitioning their back-catalogs to Download only). Plus one would think it wouldn't be cost-effective to produce a set with twice as many discs as necessary.
But whatever. This collection is fabulous, and the sound is too. I enjoyed every minute of it and will be returning to it often.
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