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Like Bombs Falling: Haydn: Symphonies Nos 68 & 100

The MHS Review 411, VOL. 12, NO.15• 1988

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David M. Greene


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A few years ago a publisher brought out a work called The Encyclopedia of Ig­norance, a symposium in which experts in various fields discussed the important ques­tions to which answers have not yet been forthcoming. One such unsolved riddle is, fascinatingly, whether other people's con­sciousness is like one's own. "Con­sciousness" surely includes sense impres­sions. Do I, for example, see what you see, when we regard the same object? What col­or in my spectrum is what you see as red? Etc.

My mind automatically goes back to this question every time I read the complaints of the anti-CD crowd in the "Letters" col­umn. To be sure, there is an immense varie­ty of sizes and shapes of external ears among human beings, even discounting those of Mr. Spock, which might account for an immense variety of hearing. But can it account for the criticisms of CDs as "cold," "mechanical," and "unnatural"?

Every major development in musical reproduction has elicited such resistance. The fulminations of Sir Compton Macken­zie, founder-editor of The Gramophone, against microphoned recording have often been cited. I myself refused stereo for a time, and pooh-poohed it after acquiring it until the night the Tannhauser pilgrims started out in the kitchen and exited through the front window.

The present complainants invariably cite the megabucks they have put into LP playback equipment. One doesn't suppose, of course, that their impressions are col­ored with sour grapes. Nor is it possible that they are suffering from something like the good-old-days syndrome. (It is very hard to give up the comfort of well-worn slippers.)

To be sure, the LP followed hard on the traces of a miraculous upgrading in sound recording. But, at least until the digital age, there were drawbacks. There were, for ex­ample, tape hiss, surface noise, and, above all, dynamic compression. Perhaps the first two contribute the "warmth" the gripers demand; doubtless they relish the coughs, chatter, and gum-popping of modern concert audiences, as providing a "human" element. Me, I'm a worshiper of silence where music is concerned. And I delight like anything to being able to distinguish a fortissimo from a pianissimo. I am tickled pink to be made aware of the SPACE that divides one instrument from another, however cozy the old boozy blur might have been. I too have fairly expen­sive equipment, and I shall continue to listen, as time permits, to my 17,000 LPs. But I am acquiring CDs at a dizzying rate. and many of them duplicate favorite LPs (so I can take them with me when I'm carted off to the Home), which I am really hearing now for the first time.

The occasion for this outburst is having been sent the Teldec CD version of these two Haydn symphonies. I have all the Haydn symphonies in my collection, many of them in multiples. All too often, however, in playing one or another, I've found my interest and attention flagging, and sometimes my eyes slowly closing. In fact my first reaction on seeing that I would have to hear the "Military" was "Oh, not that old thing again!"

Well, it wasn't! Hamoncourt sees it (pro­bably correctly) as reflecting Haydn's feel­ings at the end of a bloodsoaked century. And the way in which, on the CD, the drums and cymbals suddenly overpower the bewigged and powdered formality of the opening movement is like the bombs falling in the night on Guernica.

Familiarity is, in any case, no problem with no. 68. Published in Holland in 1779, it was, thought Robbins Landon 20 years ago, written a year earlier, but he has since guessed that it dates from around 1775. The published version omitted the Minuet (uncommonly intended as the second movement) and slashed bleeding chunks out of the Adagio, the most inventive movement of the four, whose chamberlike scoring also profits by the recording. (Since this is fully digital, my opinion here pro­bably applies to all three formats.)

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