Two months ago Warner Classics released a major (52-CD) collection of recordings made by Simon Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO). It was in his capacity as CBSO Music Director between 1980 and 1998 that Rattle established an international reputation. It is unclear how much “meat and potatoes” programming went into almost two decades with that ensemble; but this box set clearly demonstrates that, as far as recording was concerned, Rattle wanted to make it a point to avoid much of the beaten path, reserving his attention for composers that are often neglected by other conductors.
As is often the case with these large collections, there is little apparent logic to how those 52 CDs have been ordered. Nevertheless, there is a helpful index in the accompanying booklet listing composers in alphabetical order and identifying which compositions are performed on which disc. After a bit of browsing, however, one discovers that very little attention has been devoted to any composer before Anton Bruckner. Indeed, only one composer enjoys that honor; and that is Joseph Haydn.
This may have been part of a shrewd decision to pick just the right battles when trying to compete on the playing field of the recording industry. Anything earlier than Haydn is now the provenance of those who take historically-informed performance very seriously; and that seriousness has percolated from performers to listeners with impressive success. On the other hand just about anything between Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms tends to be limited to the warhorse selections, which have been recorded to death.
Haydn, on the other hand, is a highly imaginative composer whose inventive capacities are too frequently overlooked. In any respect it should not be a surprise that Rattle would have been as serious about championing Haydn as he was about championing Arnold Schoenberg. In the decade following Rattle’s departure from CBSO, there have been several notable conductors that have taken up the torch of promoting Haydn’s compositions; but Rattle made a shrewd move that likely beat many of them to the punch.
It therefore seems appropriate to begin any review of Rattle’s CBSO achievements with his approach to Haydn. If we understand his sense of adventure on Haydn’s turf, we will likely be better equipped to appreciate how he carried that sense all the way from Gustav Mahler to contemporaries such as Thomas Adès and John Adams. Most importantly, these recordings show how Rattle can bring a historically-informed approach to Haydn while working with a more “standard” orchestral ensemble. Again, he is not alone in these insights; and, in my home town, the San Francisco Symphony is particularly good in providing just the right instrumental resources and techniques to any composer earlier than Beethoven. Much of this has emerged through their work with guest conductors, but Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas is just as well informed on these matters.
Rattle’s approach may best be appreciated in the resource information provided for the recording of the Hoboken XXI/2 oratorio The Creation. The continuo brings a relatively contemporary cello (Ulrich Heinen) and bass (John Tettersdill) together with a fortepiano (Harry Bickett). The selection of timpani and sticks suggest that these are period instruments, with sharper attacks than are encountered on more modern instruments. The libretto is sung in English with, unfortunately, no indication of which English version Rattle used (or whether he arranged for a new one). While Haydn felt that the oratorio should be sung in English for English-speaking audiences, his music was written around the German version of the libretto by Gottfried van Sweeten; and its fit to English is often awkward. (The original English text was by Haydn’s impresario, Johann Peter Salomon.) The resulting impression of Rattle’s approach is one of “a little of this and a little of that;” but the effect, for the most part, captures the necessary dramatism of the libretto.
The remaining six selections are symphonies from the first volume of the Hoboken catalog. In numerical order (and with nicknames when appropriate) these are 22 in E-flat major (“The Philosopher”), 60 in C major (“The Distracted”), 70 in D major, 86 in D major, 90 in C major, and 102 in B-flat major. These cover both Haydn’s service to the Esterházy family and his “free agent” activities in London. What is particularly important is that none of them fall into the usual warhorse category, but each has its own uniquely identifying virtues. Most fascinating is 60, which is actually incidental music for a play (entitled The Distracted), which is the least conventional in terms of structure and includes a rather striking mad scene.
It goes without saying that Haydn’s wit is served up in ample supply. Indeed, with its aggravatingly false ending in the final movement, 90 is as much a “surprise” symphony as 94 in G major; and it does not need timpani to force its point! It is also worth noting that Rattle is very good at honoring repeat signs, which means that the false ending comes around a second time in 90. Rattle seems to know just how to keep the listener fooled for a second time.