These large-scale performances make some of the movements sound as though they had been written twenty years later by Beethoven. The New York Philharmonic seems to be present in full strength, and many will think Dorati's versions, SDD482-4, 8/76) more in keeping with the period. And yet Haydn was commissioned to write these six symphonies for an unusually large orchestra; there were said to be forty violins available, and even if the writer meant forty string players that's still a large number even by today's standards. I have no doubt that it was with decibels in mind that Haydn planned the rather empty-looking passages near the start and right at the end of No. 86, and why not? Sheer volume can be very exciting, a thought that must have occurred to Beethoven when rounding off his Fifth Symphony.
Thus there are good arguments for Bernstein's approach, especially as the orchestra is so superbly competent. The strings play the quick finales with astonishing precision, and the woodwind (sometimes aided by the balance engineer) come through with unfailing clarity, their phrasing always polished, their staccato notes always slaccalissimo. Tunes on the lower strings are never drowned by the violins as they so often are in live performance, and one's admiration for such a balance is only slightly dimmed by one's awareness than others besides the conductor are giving it their attention (though no one gives much attention to the horns in Nos. 82 and 83).
Symphony No. 82, Bear, sounds the most Beethoven-like of the six, and in spite of its number it may have been written last. I think myself that the pounding accents and almost military exactitude are rather oppressive, but there is certainly excitement here. Bernstein has taken great care over details, and the first movement of No. 85 is mesmerically gripping (and the second surely too fast). Many movements are played with a sensitive expertise to which one cannot fail to respond. But there are some during which I lose sight of Haydn and see only the 'Great Conductor'. In No. 84 he suddenly slows down the tempo for the last six bars of the slow movement, which is the sort of trick conductors used to indulge in before the war but have grown out of since. In No. 86 the slow movement is much slower than usual and too much in the grand style, too much of an interpretation; nearly marvellous but just overdone. And strange things can happen in the trios of the minuets, over which Bernstein takes great trouble, as indeed did Haydn. Those in Nos. 82 and 83 are most delicately managed. But what is one to think of those in Nos. 85 and 86? He plays them slower than the minuets and with the extremes of rubato he would rightly bring to Ländler-type music in a Mahler symphony. It's beautifully done, but it's not Haydn.
I've mentioned the movements in which Bernstein's exaggerations worried me, but I must add that many will like these movements very much indeed; also that elsewhere there is very little exaggeration, just good playing. A resonant acoustic adds to the grandeur of these interpretations which are of their kind first-rate.-- Gramophone