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Haydn's Finest, For London

Portrait of Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn.
Kean Collection
Getty Images
Portrait of Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn.

To mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Joseph Haydn, Ted Libbey considers the great composer's final set of symphonies.

Joseph Haydn's last 12 symphonies, commissioned by the London impresario Johann Peter Saloman and composed between 1791 and 1795, are known as the London Symphonies, and are considered the composer's supreme achievements in the form.

These are the grandest of Haydn's symphonies, in both proportion and orchestration. Haydn here offers a compendium of late-18th-century symphonic thought, embracing the full range of style and topics found in the music of the classical period. While the ideas themselves aren't new, they are expressed with a new directness and a heightened sense of profile. Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is how each of these works exhibits its own character while remaining unmistakably the work of one mind.

The last of Haydn's London Symphonies is a work of summation whose nickname ("London") attests to its pride of place in the group. It begins with a weighty introduction in the style of a French overture, full of pathos. In the Andante, a theme-and-variations movement, there's a strong sense of fantasy. The minuet is a brilliant country dance with a hint of the hurdy-gurdy. And the finale opens with an exuberant treatment of a Croatian folk tune over a musette-style drone base. At the end of the movement, in the score he wrote, "Fine Laus Deo" ("The End, Praise God") provides a wonderful ending to this glorious set of 12 symphonies.

The Colin Davis Touch

The London Symphonies have been interpreted in different ways by many different conductors, and picking the best recordings is a difficult task. That said, the laurel goes to Colin Davis, whose 1975-81 accounts with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam stand among the most impressive recorded accomplishments.

These are exceptionally personal interpretations, with wit and warmth in every measure. All 12 symphonies are wonderfully well-played and expertly recorded.

To hear last week's feature, click here.

For a full archive of NPR's Classical 50, click here.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ted Libbey