Categories
Recording

Sturm und Drang 3

The Mozartists, conducted by Ian Page
72:59
Signum SIGCD759

This is the eagerly anticipated third volume in what is planned as a seven-disc series of so-called ‘Sturm und Drang’ (storm and stress) works. Applied to music, as previously noted, it’s a slippery concept that takes its origination from the literary genre of that name, a movement typified by Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and driven by the expression of fierce, sometimes uncontrollable passions. A forerunner of 19th-century Romanticism, it is applied notably to literary works from the early 1770s until c.1790.

The most common usage of the term in music is to a group of stormy, dramatic symphonies composed by Haydn from the mid-1760s to around a decade later, the present ongoing series having to date featured three of them: No. 39 in G minor (1765) on vol 2; No 49 in F minor ‘La Passione’ (1768) on vol 1, and No 44 in E minor ‘Trauer’ (c.1771), which is included on the present CD. It’s a work Ian Page describes as the greatest of the composer’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ symphonies, while I, throwing caution to the wind, would describe it as one of the greatest of all his symphonies. It will be noted that these works are in a minor key, one of the main characteristics of ‘Sturm und Drang’ compositions, and also that two of them pre-date the literary movement, making it difficult to tie them into any suggestion of a defined ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement. As Ian Page suggests in his general note on the topic included, another and more tenable explanation is that it is a reaction against the Rococo charm of the mid-century.

All four movements of the ‘Trauer’ symphony are outstanding, but it is arguably on the magnificent Adagio, placed as the third rather than second movement, that the symphony’s particular claim to exceptional quality lies. Employing muted strings throughout, it threads a path of utmost tranquillity disturbed only by momentary restlessness in the second half. It is supremely well played here with a sense of rapt beauty that further enhances it, as does the contrast with the fiercely uncompromising outer movements. By coincidence, the other symphony here also includes a remarkable slow movement with muted strings. This is the three-movement Symphony in G minor by the Bohemian composer Leopold Kozeluch (1747-1818), the last of a group of three published in 1787. Kozeluch was well-established in Vienna by the time Mozart arrived there in 1781 and in 1785 founded his own publishing house in the city. The outer movements of the G minor Symphony are splendid examples of ‘Sturm und Drang’, typical of the angst, tension, buzzing tremolandi and angularity familiar from the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart (and J C Bach in vol 2) in that key. The central Adagio, however, is a sublime movement, with some particularly felicitous writing; the whole movement sounds as if it is an anticipation of Così fan tutte. The final orchestral work on the disc is Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue for strings, K 546, two movements composed some while apart, with the new, deeply, almost spiritual Adagio composed in 1788 prefacing a fiercely inexorable fugue orchestrated from an earlier fugue for two pianos. The work as a whole is a Janus-like composition with the Adagio anticipating Romantic expressivity, the Fugue looking firmly back over its shoulder to the Baroque. It is projected with great depth and body by the strings of The Mozartists.

Another special feature of the series is the inclusion of vocal, mainly operatic, extracts. Vol 1 is especially valuable in this respect, including first recordings of arias by badly neglected composers such as Jommelli and Traetta, in addition to Gluck, all splendidly sung by Chiara Skerath.

I don’t feel the vocal contribution here to be as strong, either as to content or performance. The US soprano Emily Pogorelc is typical of the current vogue for singers that essay a wide range of repertoire rather than specialise in earlier music. She has a significant continuous vibrato – listen for example to the lovely cavatina that bridges the two stretches of accompanied recitative in Paisiello’s scena for Adrane from Annibale in Torino (Turin, 1771) – and there is a distinct lack of control in the upper range, especially in coloratura. The voice itself has a lustrous quality that brings its rewards, but I feel these are more likely to be appreciated in a later repertoire. The other, and to my mind, superior, vocal excerpt comes from Anton Schweitzer’s Alceste (Weimar, 1773). The opera is notable for having a German libretto by no less celebrated a writer than Wieland, though the music is thoroughly Italianate. Alceste’s  ‘Er ist gekommen … Zwischen Angst’ opens the opera in full dramatic flood, as the queen awaits news of her husband Admetus’s impending death. Pogorelc captures the drama well, but again too much of her singing is blustery and lacking control.

Overall, however, this makes for another exceptionally satisfying addition to a series that is special not just for the thought and scholarship that goes into it, but Page’s direction of his fine players. It is throughout beautifully balanced and paced, while at the same time musically highly insightful.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Festin Royal: Du mariage du Comte D’Artois, Versailles, 1773

Les Ambassadeurs – La Grande Écurie, conducted by Alexis Kossenko
125:56 (2 CDs in a card triptych)
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS101

Following its completion in 1770 the magnificent Opéra Royal in the palace of Versailles played host not only to opera but also to large-scale court events such as weddings, banquets and balls. In fact, the day of its inauguration witnessed such an event in the form of the marriage of the Dauphin, the future Louis XVI, to Marie Antoinette, the youngest daughter of the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa. This was followed by a performance of Lully’s Persée. Three years later, having hosted the wedding celebrations of Louis XV’s next-in-line successor, the Count of Provence in 1771, came the marriage of the Count of Artois. As with all these sumptuous proceedings, music played an important role in the banqueting, in 1773 under the auspices of the current Surintendant de la Musique de la Chambre du roi, François Francoeur.

In contrast to previous incumbents, Francoeur did not write special music himself. Rather in conjunction with his close collaborator François Rebel he produced four suites for the occasion, utilising music taken not only from his works, understandably the lion’s share, but also successful operas by such as Rameau, Royer, Dauvergne, Mondonville and composers whose names are today less familiar: Pierre-Montan Berton (1727-1780), René de Galard de Béarn, marquis de Brassac (1698-1771) and Bernard de Bury (1720-1785). One of the fascinating aspects of the music included is not only how much of it is not recent, but also the number of works added to existing classics by the likes of Lully and Campra. Thus we have additions by Francoeur and de Bury for productions in 1761 and 1770 respectively of Lully’s Armide, providing a rare example at this time of a secular canon of works having become established as repertoire.

There are two particularly striking aspects of this recording produced at Versailles. The first is that the four suites are a rare example of music being performed in the exact location in which they were originally given. More fascinating still is that the performing forces were determined from a contemporary document that lists the number of instrumentalists that took part. From that, we learn that the orchestra consisted of 70 players, including 26 violins, six violas, no fewer than 14 cellos, four oboes, six bassoons, four horns and, interestingly, a pair of historic clarinets made in France. The results of putting together this large band are stunning, every bit as exciting as hearing Handel’s big occasional pieces played by the forces originally intended. As conductor Alexis Kossenko eloquently puts it: ‘This indulgence turned into exhilaration when we played the first notes of Francoeur’s overture [an addition to that from Lully’s Armide for a 1745 or 1761 production] … The density, the richness of the sound, the robustness of the attacks, but also the mellowness afforded by the 50 or so strings … All of this suddenly made sense, revealing the grandeur of this repertoire, royalty that asserts itself as much in magnificence as in grace …’ Both magnificence and grace are abundant in these splendidly played performances (well, I suppose the horns have their moments, but that’s all part of the fun) which far from being routine or dutiful exude an irresistible verve and character.

It would be pointless to spend much time discussing individual tracks. It’s not that kind of issue and in any event there are too many items, over 40. But a few observations. To get a taster of the visceral excitement that frequently leaps from these CDs try Royer’s Chaconne from his Pyrrhus of 1730, relishing especially the episode with the cellos and basses chugging energetically away. That’s just one of four chaconnes, a magnificent form that I have to confess having a particular weakness for. The one by Berton, an addition to Iphigénie en Tauride, Desmarest’s 1761 production of Campra’s 1704 opera, is a noble, stirring structure running to some nine minutes. Although almost forgotten today, Berton enjoyed a high profile in French musical life, being joint director (with Jean-Claude Trial (1732-1771), also represented here) and then general administrator of the Opéra, in addition to taking on the directorship of the Concert Sprituel, the famous concert-giving organisation. One final thought. As is proved by this hugely enjoyable issue, 18th-century France was not short of fine composers, but one name obstinately stands out as a great one. That name? Jean-Philippe Rameau, of course!

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

J. S. Bach: Harpsichord concertos

Steven Devine, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
63:30
resonus RES10318

This collection of Bach’s harpsichord concertos is notable for including Steven Devine’s reconstruction of BWV 1059, of which the first eight bars alone survive in Bach’s hand indicating that the opening Sinfonia of Cantata 35, Geist und Seele wird verwirret, forms the earliest version of this cantata. What Steven Devine has done is to take other movements from BWV 35 to complete the concerto, using material from the first aria and the sinfonia that opens part ii. This parallels other harpsichord concertos like BWV 1053 which draws material from cantata movements in BWV 169 & 49. He also notes the intriguing autograph instruction written over the top line ‘Haut e Viol.1’, indicating a part for a single oboe – not the three-part oboe band as in the Cantata 35 original.

Devine’s solution to creating an oboe part is to look at those passages where the oboe band and the string band diverge (as in bars 24 ff) and use this to create melodic interplay between the violin and oboe. In the second movement (the Siciliano-like opening of the ABA first aria), he uses the oboe to play much of the low-lying voice part (did Katharina Sprecklesen try it on a d’amore?), though he adds the oboe to the tutti in the opening sinfonia as well, which slightly clouds the distinction he is trying to make between the melodic line of the given voice-part and the filigree diminutions of the harpsichord.

But I like both the feel and the sound of Devine’s versions – all very much in the spirit of Bach’s arrangements of his own pre-loved versions, and hope that this will become an accepted way of re-creating BWV 1059.

And the performance? Devine’s chosen harpsichord for these concertos is a two-manual by Colin Booth (2000) after a single manual by Johann Christof Fleischer (Hamburg, 1710). They recorded in the rather dry acoustic of St John’s, Smith Square and in consequence the sound, though crystal clear, lacks a little bloom. The players are the OAE’s top players, led by Margaret Faultless. Add Devine’s magical fingerwork and you have a recipe for success – except I don’t find it quite as captivating as the recent releases by Andrew Arthur and the Hanover Band.

David Stancliffe

Categories
Recording

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos

The Hanover Band, Andrew Arthur
68:34
Signum Records SIGCD764

When the first volume of Andrew Arthur’s harpsichord concertos with The Hanover Band (which I reviewed for the EMR in July 2022) was recorded, they also recorded the concertos that make up volume II. So the admirable acoustic of St Nicholas, Arundel and Trinity Hall’s excellent harpsichord by Andrew Garlick, built in 2009 (after a Jean-Claude Goujon of 1748), are common to both. A major key to the success of these recordings is the singing quality of this harpsichord in this acoustic under the fluid coaxing of Andrew Arthur’s touch.

This second volume begins with BWV 1050, which we know as the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, with its ground-breaking harpsichord ‘cadenza’, and brings the wonderful Rachel Brown into the ensemble to join Andrew Arthur and the string players of the Hanover Band, led by the spirited, agile and mellifluous playing of Theresa Caudle – this time properly acknowledged in her crucial role as the first violin. What makes these recordings so special is the natural balance between the instruments – harpsichord, woodwind and strings alike. This is particularly evident in the final concerto on the disc – BWV 1057, the version in F of the fourth Brandenburg, with two recorders (Rachel Brown and Rachel Becket) – where in this 1738 version the florid violin part of Brandenburg 4 is recast for the harpsichord and the amazing final fugal movement offers us every conceivable instrumental combination. There is so much to be learned, as always, by comparing closely Bach’s later versions with his earlier ones.

That kind of comparison is also offered by the other concertos. The Concerto in E (BWV 1053) draws each of its movements from one of Bach’s cantatas. The opening allegro is a version of the Sinfonia from Cantata 169 (1726) Gott soll allein, while 169.v, the aria Stirb in mir, Welt for alto, strings and obbligato organ is the model for the middle movement, a lyrical Siciliano. The last movement is adapted from the opening Sinfonia of BWV 49, another cantata from 1726. Were these instrumental sinfonias that Bach used instead of an opening chorus in a number of cantatas in the autumn of 1726 already in existence as concerto movements for a solo violin, like others that became harpsichord concertos in due course?

The intimate Concerto in F sharp minor is perhaps the biggest treat of all. The tempo in the first movement is moderate, and the alternation of pizzicato and arco in the string parts underlines the quest to discover where we are headed with the angular opening theme. The answer is to the second movement, where the magical Sinfonia for oboe and strings that opens Cantata 156, Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe appears in the unlikely key of A flat. Here again, the acoustics give the pizzicato accompaniment a surprisingly resonant bloom, capped by their final arco bar. Like the first movement, there are repeated echo effects within which the dialogue between the first violin and the harpsichord establishes their natural duetting relationship.

In this second volume, I have become more aware of the crucial part that the acoustics of St Nicholas, Arundel play in shaping the sound in these recordings. This is perhaps most evident in the slow movement of BWV 1050, where as well as the perfectly articulated overlapping threads of all three players, the expressive lift after the first quaver beats in bars 27 and 37 in the harpsichord gives this movement such finesse; and having a two-manual instrument that can revert to basso continuo mode helps articulate the structure as well. The acoustics help establish the tonality so splendidly in the opening of the last movement too. It begins with the violin playing a clear, rounded rhythmic entry that is mirrored by the bloom of the traverso, so that when the harpsichord (in two parts) joins them we are well prepared for the tutti, and ready to appreciate the subtlety of the bass line in those sections where the violone is silenced and the cello plays alone.

Enchanting too is the way every player contributes. Listen to the wonderful viola at bar 147 in this last movement – and in bars 181 ff, and the cello in 192 ff: this is real playing with each other. How lucky Andrew Arthur is to have such fine companions in making these wonderful recordings, where the harpsichord is never stridently soloistic but always the first among equals.

I shall enjoy returning to this recording for a long time. It is such responsive, unshowy but fluid, utterly musical playing. This is how to hear Bach, and you should get it at once.

David Stancliffe

Categories
Recording

Mozart: Double Concertos

Capella Savaria, conducted by Nicholas McGegan
72:20
Hungaroton HCD 32866

Founded in 1981, Capella Savaria is the oldest Hungarian period instrument ensemble and boasts an impressive back-catalogue of authentic accounts of Baroque and classical music mainly on the Hungaroton label and mainly under their chief conductor Nicholas McGegan. There are many period-instrument performances on CD of the famous Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart, and this account stands out for its freshness and musicality, the two soloists particularly moulding the music tastefully and allowing it to breathe. If the ensemble playing is not quite of the highest order, another attractive feature of this CD are the pairings, the unfamiliar Concertone K190/186E for two violins and orchestra and a fragment for violin, piano and orchestra K Anh. 56/315f reconstructed by Robert D Levin. The Concertone is a charming piece dating from Mozart’s Salzburg period, and at times it seems poised to involve the principal oboe and cello in a larger concertante ensemble. Of the Concerto for Violin and Piano the musicologist Alfred Einstein opined that it was ‘one of the greatest losses in art that Mozart did not complete this work’, and indeed from the opening passage and subsequent writing for the large orchestra and the versatile concertante duo it is clear that the composer had set his sights very high. Mozart composed the work in Mannheim, and although the famous court orchestra (the celebrated ‘army of generals’) had recently departed, clearly their impressive musical standards had permeated the local musical scene – Mozart was writing for what was technically an orchestra of amateurs. Although he customarily wrote well for the piano, the same cannot always be said of his writing for solo violin, but in this work he writes brilliantly for both. More than once we hear pre-echoes of Mendelssohn’s imaginative concerto for violin and piano, and we should be grateful for the reconstructive skills of Robert Levin, which have allowed us to enjoy this lovely movement – albeit while yearning for the movements Mozart never completed.

D. James Ross

Categories
Recording

Surprising Royer – Orchestral Suites

Les Talens Lyriques, directed by Christophe Rousset
82:07
Aparte AP298

It is not clear why it should be ‘surprising Royer’, Royer being Pancrace Royer (1703-1755). He was born of French parents in Turin, his father, an engineer, having been seconded by Louis XIV to assist the house of Savoy. The family returned to Paris while he was still a child. The connections with the royal family stood Royer in good stead; he became a teacher of the royal children, his links securing him his first opera commission, the tragédie Pyhrrus, composed to celebrate the birth of the Dauphin in 1729 and subsequently first performed at the Paris Opéra in 1730. That same year he was appointed maïtre de musique at the Opéra, where he oversaw the production of Rameau’s first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie (1733). Later Royer would become director of the famous Parisian concert society, Le Concert Spiritual and the composer of a virtuosic and highly successful book of keyboard works that included transcriptions from his own operas.

They number five works in addition to Pyhrrus and from them Christophe Rousset has chosen orchestral extracts, mostly dances, from four: Pyhrrus, the ballet-heroïque Le pouvoir de l’Amour (1743), Zaïde, reine de Grenade (1739), another ballet-heroïque and the acte de ballet Almasis (1748). The opening overture to Le pouvoir immediately reveals a composer not only thoroughly competent in contrapuntal technique but also one with an impressive command of orchestration and orchestral colour. If Royer’s dances overall lack the supreme distinction of those of his contemporary Rameau – in particular we find only rare glimpses of the languid sensuality that is just one of many reasons for Rameau’s greatness as a dance composer – there are many that have thoroughly attractive qualities of their own. The two from a hunting scene in Zaïde that was apparently much applauded, an ‘Entrée des chasseurs’ and an ‘Air pour les chasseurs’ creating exciting evocations of the hunt, while some of the more extended dance movements are also particularly striking. Among these is a long and effective Chaconne from Le pouvoir that contrasts airy, diaphanous writing for the flute with more animated passages for the full orchestra. Another extended movement, an ‘Air tendrement’ again with restful trilling flutes and a counter melody featuring bassoons, is arguably the closest Royer comes to Rameau. And if you want irresistible verve, the two ‘Tambourins’ from Royer’s penultimate opera, the one-act Almasis fills the bill admirably.

To say that no one does this kind of music with the élan, the insight and the sensitivity that Christophe Rousset does has by now become virtually a cliché rather than an observation. Rhythms are sprung with refined grace, melodies shaped with elegance, but above all comes the feeling that dancers are never far removed from Rousset’s ‘mind’s eye’. Add to this superb orchestral playing by Les Talens Lyriques – just listen to the rich depth of the bass string section with its six cellos – and it becomes clear that this is a CD that needs no further endorsement from me or anyone else. If you have any kind of feeling for French baroque music you need to hear this. Post haste.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Mozart: Piano Concertos

Academy of Ancient Music, Robert Levin, Bojan Čičić, Laurence Cummings
62:33
AAM AAM042

Many will doubtless recall that among the most exciting projects of the last decades of the 20th century was the recording of complete sets of the Mozart keyboard concertos undertaken by Malcolm Bilson (Archiv) and Robert Levin (L’Oiseau-Lyre). Employing instruments of the period and stylish ornamentation, both cycles were path-breaking in the manner in which they gave us the most historically informed ideas yet of how the piano concertos might have sounded to Mozart’s own audiences. The Bilson cycle was to all intents and purposes completed – though you had to go ‘off-piste’ to get the three very early concertos of K107 – but Levin’s came to a halt around the turn of the century after eight volumes. The death of Christopher Hogwood, the conductor of the series, in 2014 might have set the seal on determining that the cycle would remain incomplete. Now however comes the first of a series of five discs on the AAM’s own label that will complete Levin’s set by 2024.

It is something of an assortment of curiosities on which you will not even hear a note played on the fortepiano! Perhaps most curious of all is the concerto fragment that appears in the music notebook of Mozart’s sister Nannerl. The notebook is home to several of Mozart’s earliest efforts at composition (K1a, b and c) and the proposition made here (by Mozart scholar Cliff Eisen) is that the fragment was composed by Mozart and entered in the notebook by the children’s father Leopold. The orchestral passages are not notated but the music has been reconstructed by Robert Levin. It has a strangely familiar feel to it, which annoyingly I cannot put a name to at present, though the saucy folk-like tune could be that of any number of cheeky songs or comic arias. Like the three concertos of K107, it is played on a two-manual harpsichord built by Alan Gotto of Norwich after c.1770 Silbermann, an instrument that does in fact at times sound disconcertingly like a fortepiano (at least as recorded here).

The three concertos of K107 represent a small step in Mozart’s giant advancement of the keyboard concerto. Dating from 1771 or 72, they are not original works, but arrangements of the keyboard sonatas opus 5 of J C Bach, who had befriended the child Mozart during his London visit some six years earlier. Only the first, a charming work, has three movements, the others just two. All three betray the galant elegance of their original composer, as does the sentimental style of the set of variations that form the second movement of the G-major Concerto (No 2). Like all the music on the CD the concertos are played with an easy fluency and nimble, precise finger-work. There are, however, times when I felt that Levin might have allowed a little more affection into his playing, which does carry more than the odd hint of the dutiful.

For those that haven’t read the notes prior to listening to the disc, another surprise comes with the Piano Concerto No 5, K175 (1773), Mozart’s first original piano concerto, for it is played not on the piano (or fortepiano) but on the organ. Eisen’s argument for doing so is convincing. You’ll have to read the full note to find out why in detail, but in brief it hinges mainly on two facts. Mozart’s lost autograph titled the work ‘per il Clavicembalo’, at the time a generic term for keyboard instruments. Perhaps still more persuasively the keyboard part lacks the dynamic markings expected in music for piano, but not that for organ. Although not mentioned by Eisen the general character of the work might also suggest organ for the original solo instrument, for it is a grandiose D-major concerto with trumpets and timpani. To my mind, it works well enough in the outer movements but the lyrical central Andante (without the drums and trumpets, of course) sounds far more ‘pianistic’ and arouses doubts. I also have a question mark about the instrument used, the organ completed by George England in 1760 for Christ’s Chapel of Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, Dulwich, and restored by William Drake in 2009. I’m no organ expert, but it doesn’t sound remotely like the Austrian organs of this period known to me. Levin’s playing of it is again remarkable for its easy facility, though there are hints of skating over some of the more florid passage work. Lastly, there’s an organ work that there’s no debate about, the final Church or Epistle Sonata, K336. The AAM gives Levin generally tidy support, although the ensemble playing of the strings is variable, the above-mentioned variations of K107/2 being an example of less than perfect ensemble. Overall the disc is an interesting addition to the cycle if not quite of the highest calibre.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Mozart: The symphonies – the beginning and the end

Il Pomo d’Oro directed from the fortepiano by Maxim Emelyanychev
77:00
Aparté 307

This is the first in what is planned to be a long-term project to record all the Mozart symphonies, with the addition to each volume of what Maxim Emelyanychev calls in his introductory note a ‘sort of musical hors d’oeuvre’. In the case of the present issue that is the Piano Concerto in A, K488, which may cause more than a few eyebrows to rise describing it in such terms. As the CDs title suggests the symphonies included here are Mozart’s very first work in the form, Symphony No 1 in E flat, K16, composed in London at the age of eight in 1764, and the last, No 41 in C (‘Jupiter’), K551, composed in Vienna in 1788. It’s quite a thought-provoking idea since it reminds us of the huge journey taken by the symphony in the hands of Haydn and Mozart, who between them took the form from being a modest three-part introduction to an Italian opera or other dramatic work to the status of magnificent concert works such as Haydn’s ‘London’ symphonies or the great trilogy with which Mozart signed off from the genre, No’s 39 to 41. K16 is indeed a classic example of the genre’s sources, a charming work in only three brief movements, its relationship to dramatic works apparent in the contrasts the young Mozart provides right from the opening bars, a commanding ‘call to attention’ immediately relaxing into a gentle, quiet legato response.

Before looking at any specific examples, let’s try to establish a few general parameters that will presumably also set the scene for future issues. I think the first, and perhaps surprising thing, to say is that these are thoroughly conservative performances.  That may sound odd but Il Pomo d’Oro, of which Emelyanychev is chief conductor, is more likely to be found in the opera house (often figuratively), where it has at times been involved with some radical performances and productions. With the odd arguable exception (the final Allegro assai of the concerto is a little fast for my taste, the central Andante of K16 a little slow) tempos throughout are sensible, while the orchestral playing and balance are excellent throughout.  Every repeat is taken, an admirable policy that here in particular allows the great contrapuntal coda of the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony to crown the immense peroration of the movement with exceptional power. For a period-instrument performance, the solo playing of the concerto is unusually conservative as to ornamentation, with only very modest embellishments made in the central Andante and no suggestion of the piano playing in ritornelli. Incidentally, the piano played by Emelyanychev is a fine copy of a Conrad Graf of 1823. There is no suggestion of a continuo in the symphonies, which one would have expected at least in the early symphony.

Emelyanychev’s playing of the concerto is fluent, with excellently articulated finger-work in the outer movements and considerable sensitivity in the Andante, which features some lovely piano string playing complemented by the beautifully tuned playing of the composer’s glorious wind ensemble writing. At times I did wonder if K16 was a little prosaic, the last thing expected from these performers, but the ‘Jupiter’ is a splendidly bold performance, with its many contrapuntal elements well brought out. Little bits of individuality include the hint of tympani drum rolls (instead of Mozart’s single beats) in the Minuet. In the Andante Cantabile (ii) the yearning motif that pervades is given a rare and ineffable sadness, while the pain that for me is never far from the surface is inflected with even greater emotion in the development. The great finale is given a thrilling drive, but not at the expense of the movement’s inherent nobility and sense of taking the listener on an enthralling, unpredictable journey that will reach its destination only in the contrapuntal wizardry of the coda.

In sum, these are highly satisfying performances that auger well for the long traversal ahead. If not startlingly revelatory, emulation of this standard will ensure Emelyanychev’s performances will make for a fine library of the symphonies for anyone choosing to collect them.   

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Haydn – Symphonies 13 – “Hornsignal”

Il Giardino Armonico, conducted by Giovanni Antonini
80:18
Alpha Classics Alpha 692

This latest addition to Giovanni Antonini’s outstanding integral Haydn cycle turns to a trio of symphonies that fall into the category of what the notes delightfully term Haydn’s ‘horn-heavy’ symphonies. Particularly notable among these is, of course, No. 31 in D, nick-named the ‘Hornsignal’ and a work older readers may recall was a great favourite of Sir Thomas Beecham’s. There are few more thrilling openings in music than that of the ‘Hornsignal’, with the unusual scoring of four horns braying their brave fanfares with aplomb and total lack of inhibition. The symphony dates from 1765, around the time Haydn had become de facto Kapellmeister at Esterházy. There is indeed much about this symphony to suggest that Haydn was using it give the players of what had virtually become ‘his’ orchestra a showcase in which to show off their talents. The Adagio (ii) is a three-way dialogue between the horns, a solo violin and solo viola, while the Finale (Moderato molto) opens with a cantabile melody – beautifully played by the strings of Il Giardino Armonico – before proceeding to a set of variations in which cello, flute, violin and horns (of course) are all given a place in the limelight, the whole rounded off by the double-bass – a winning idea – before the tempo speeds up for a brief Presto coda. The whole symphony is in Haydn’s best ‘great entertainer’ mode, having no pretensions to profundity; it is accepted as such with relish by Antonini’s splendid players just as it must have been by Haydn’s.

Symphony No 59, known as the ‘Fire’ Symphony, dates from four years later. No convincing explanation has been advanced for the name, but it seems to stem from a mid-19th-century catalogue of Haydn’s work, where the name ‘La Tempesta’ is also associated with it. Whatever the background the name is not inappropriate, since from the outset the symphony has an unpredictability, even eccentricity about it that may recall the leaping of flames from one point to another. There is also a strong element of theatricality as in the second movement, where the steady slow march-like motif gives way to cantabile strings and later rude outbursts from the horns. The finale is a glorious romp, with horns again to the fore and, in this performance, a truly exhilarating sense of forward momentum.

Also from 1769 is Symphony No 48, known as ‘Maria Theresia’ from the probability of it having been composed for the name-day of the Austrian empress.  Again the outer movements in Antonini’s performance are notable for the high-level energy, outstanding balance, and bravura playing (horns to the fore again) that has been such an outstanding characteristic of the series as a whole, but here I’d like to focus on the exquisitely lovely playing of the Adagio (ii). Muted strings and veiled horns give the opening a distanced, in lontano impression, while mysterious murmuring broken chords evoke a nocturnal atmosphere. The silky refined beauty of the string playing is breathtaking.

This is another stellar addition to a cycle that is already well-proven to be infinitely and endlessly rewarding, each issue leaving the listener impatiently awaiting its successor.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Handel: Concerti Grossi opp. 3 & 6

Accademia Bizantina, directed by Ottavio Dantone harpsichord
217:12 (4 CDs)
HDB-AB-ST-001/2  (Available from https://hdbsonus.it/en)

This handsome set is currently available only as a 4-CD limited edition box set entitled ‘The Exciting Sound of Baroque Music’ from the website listed above. The title is a project being undertaken by Accademia Bizantina with the objective of, in the words of its founder and director Ottavio Dantone, ‘disseminating musical culture outside conventional listening spaces’.  It hardly needs saying that anything furthering encouragement of the discovery of music such as the Handel concerti grossi is obviously to be encouraged, particularly when played by an ensemble as distinctive as Accademia Bizantina. In its hands the sound of Baroque music is indeed exciting and often in ways that differ considerably from that of north European period instrument ensembles.  It is instantly more febrile, with an attack that can at times sound more spiky and aggressive, more muscular than the sound aimed at by, say, UK groups. Yet Italianate warmth also prevails where needed and one of the principal characteristics of the playing is always a strong sense of dramatic contrast stemming, I suspect, from the ensemble’s increasing activity in the opera pit. The sound of the full orchestra is at once fuller, richer and more rounded than that customarily sought in this music by most north European groups, the bass fortified by the strong contribution made by the inclusion of the theorbo in the continuo. More on that subject later.

Handel’s two sets of concerti grossi of course form part of the standard repertoire of Baroque orchestral music. Yet they are very different. Op 3 is a set of six concertos assembled mostly from works composed many years before and almost certainly without Handel’s authorisation by his publisher John Walsh, who issued them in 1734. They represent a vivid illustration of the anarchical world of publishing in the 18th century, one of which Walsh as a successful entrepreneur took full advantage. Lacking the scheme of the popular Corellian concerto grosso, the assemblage also contains errors that Bernardo Ticci has sought to correct in his new critical edition employed here. To move from one set to the other is to be aware immediately that opus 6 occupies a different sphere to opus 3, one that attains an elevated grandeur, breadth and nobility in general foreign to the earlier group, for all its charm. Composed in 1739, the 12 concertos were designed to be performed between the acts of Handel’s oratorios. Unlike op 3, they are true concerti grossi, with clearly delineated concertino (solo) parts contrasted with the full body of strings (unlike opus 3, which has oboe parts, opus 6 is scored only for strings.)

Unsurprisingly the performances of the two sets accords closely with the typical characteristics of Accademia Bizantina identified above. The playing is on the highest level, with outstanding concertino playing from the three solo players. Above all marked by the thrillingly committed verve and flair of the quicker movements, these players are also capable of finding a poise, delicacy and lightness of touch that brings to movements such as the final Allegro of op 6/6 an engaging enchantment or the profound intensity of expression that marks such as the Adagio (iv) of op.6/8.

There are few caveats. Some may find the string chording at times a little too abrupt and lacking sustained tone, though it is not something that here concerns me. Neither to any significant degree is the current predilection for tempos that tend to extremes, Dantone’s fondness for fast allegros being particularly prevalent. Just occasionally eyebrows might be raised, as in op 3/5 where in the succession of movements ii and iii, marked respectively Allegro and Presto, the beat for the latter sounds to my ears the slower of the two despite a marking that would suggest greater momentum. More serious to my mind is Dantone’s penchant for an assertive continuo theorbo contribution, a modern and unwelcome development in HIP in recent years. Early period instrument versions of these works, like the classic English Concert versions (1982 & 1984), found no necessity to include any kind of archlute and to my knowledge there is no evidence that Handel would have expected them. Here Dantone includes a theorbo – and worse still in places a guitar – in op.3 and both an archlute and theorbo in op.6. It is possible to argue that to help achieve the richness of Academia Bizantina’s bass sonorities such powerful instruments might be used to add chords. What is, in my view, completely unacceptable are the fiddly byzantine arabesques that here so often distract from the cantabile concertino or even ripieno lines.  Writer after writer in the 16th to 18th century complained of plucked instrument players with ideas above their station. It is high time their present-day descendants were put back in theirs.  

The set is handsomely produced, being in a sturdy box with individual cases for the two publications and a lavishly illustrated 128 pp book. My only reservation about it is that more space might with benefit have been devoted to notes on individual concertos at the expense of rather less on hyperbole. Notwithstanding, the last thing I would wish to do is conclude on a sour note. The performances are too thrilling, too life enhancing and too elevating to allow it. They deserve the widest possible circulation and I much hope they will become more generally available.

Brian Robins