April 10, 2008


Brahms: Serenades No. 1, Op. 11, and No. 2, Op. 16. Capella Augustina conducted by Andreas Spering. CPO. $16.99.

Haydn: Piano Concertos Nos. 3, 4, 9 and 11. Sebastian Knauer, piano; Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmut Müller-Brühl. Naxos. $8.99.

      The appropriate use of period instruments – or, more often, reproductions of period instruments – is by no means settled. It is certainly true that the compositions of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and many other composers were written for instruments different from those customarily heard today. It is true that some of those earlier instruments present challenges both for players and for modern audiences accustomed to greater evenness of sound. And it is true that it is very difficult to locate some older instruments, much less find someone to play them – and questionable how much they add to a performance (is an ophicleide really needed for Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture?).

      Performances nowadays are something of a hodgepodge, some of them using period instruments while others do not, with resulting effects being very varied: Beethoven’s piano concertos sound quite different on a fortepiano from the way they sound on a modern concert grand. Capella Augustina specializes in using period instruments, and that means it looks for a mid-19th-century sound for Brahms’ two orchestral serenades – resulting in performances that are sonically out of the ordinary. Furthermore, this is a chamber-sized group – about three dozen players – and these serenades are more often played by full symphony orchestras (although the first was originally conceived as a nonet). Capella Augustina brings greater clarity to the serenades than they usually receive, and lets the inner voices sound as clearly as the ones carrying the principal themes. Andreas Spering’s approach also makes some structural elements especially clear. For example, he favors broad tempos for the first three movements of the first serenade, which take up more than two-thirds of the time of the entire work. This makes the symphonic elements of these movements stand out. Then, for the final three movements, Spering bounds and bounces along, lightening the mood considerably – and showing, intentionally or not, that the first serenade in some ways does not hang together particularly well, despite the charms of its individual parts. The second serenade always comes across as darker than the first, although both are in major keys, because the second dispenses with violins – bringing voices that are usually in the middle, notably clarinets and violas, to the fore. Here Spering and Capella Augustina maintain lightness and careful balance throughout, giving the work – which is less monumental than the first serenade – more the feeling of chamber music. The extent to which these performances sound like those of the period of the serenades, both of which were first performed in 1860, is not entirely clear, but these readings are consistently interesting and successful on their own terms.

      The period-instrument issue is somewhat more consequential when it comes to Haydn’s keyboard concertos. There is no question that Haydn’s earlier concertos were written for the harpsichord. At least some of his later ones were written for fortepiano, since they contain dynamics that cannot be attained on the harpsichord. But it is common for all these works to be played on a modern piano, and that leads – as in the case of the new CD featuring Sebastian Knauer and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmut Müller-Brühl – to some inevitable inelegance of balance. Knauer plays these works with a light touch, but delicacy on a modern piano does not always blend well with Haydn’s transparent scoring, with the result that there are occasional sonic imbalances throughout the CD – even though Müller-Brühl conducts skillfully and makes the orchestra a strong partner in the performances (this used to be a period-instrument ensemble, under the name Capella Clementina, but it now performs on modern instruments). Concertos Nos. 3 and 4, in particular, would likely sound better on a harpsichord or even a fortepiano. No. 9 – whose authenticity is not certain – fits the piano reasonably well, and No. 11, probably Haydn’s best-known keyboard concerto, fits it even better (and was clearly written with some type of piano in mind). Knauer’s playing of the minor-key Adagio of No. 9 – a movement as long as the concerto’s other two combined – shows the piano to good advantage. But the speedy movements, although well played, are less satisfying. The Presto finale of No. 3, for example, never really trips as lightly as it would on a harpsichord; and while the famous Rondo all’ungarese that concludes No. 11 has plenty of verve and bounce, its notes blend sonically in a way that is characteristic of a modern piano but not especially Haydnesque. These are fine performances for listeners who enjoy hearing Haydn on modern instruments, but these concertos happen to be works in which older instruments would add more to the character of the music.

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