August 07, 2008


Handel: Water Music; Music for the Royal Fireworks. L’Arte dell’Arco conducted by Federico Guglielmo. CPO. $16.99 (SACD).

Rebel: Les Élémens; Rameau: Castor et Pollux—Suite. L’Orfeo Barockorchester conducted by Michi Gaigg. Phoenix Edition. $16.99 (SACD).

Haydn: Horn Concerto No. 1; Harpsichord Concerto in D; Double Concerto for Violin and Harpsichord (Fortepiano); Trumpet Concerto. Dmitri Babanov, horn; Harald Hoeren, harpsichord and fortepiano; Ariadne Daskalakis, violin; Jürgen Schuster, trumpet; Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmut Müller-Brühl. Naxos. $8.99.

      Although original-instrument performances have become more common in recent years, there is still something revelatory about hearing well-known works played on original instruments (or modern copies), using the performance styles for which those works were written. This is true even when a piece’s provenance is somewhat confused, as is the case with Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, two highly popular occasional works that go against the grain of most of Handel’s music (he rarely wrote purely instrumental works, preferring vocal forms) and that exist in several equally “authentic” versions: Music for the Royal Fireworks, for example, was originally performed without any strings at all, but Handel had wanted them and created a string version later. What is interesting about the performances by L’Arte dell’Arco under Federico Guglielmo is that they follow contemporary performance practices in terms of tuning (A=415 hz) and tempi, attempt to re-create the “right” movement sequence for the Water Music (again, there are several versions of it), but use a particularly small ensemble for what were certainly big outdoor pieces in their original incarnations. There is nothing large or full about the sound of this 26-piece ensemble, and that requires some adjustment on the part of listeners, especially those accustomed to the big, bright sound typically associated with Music for the Royal Fireworks. It is an adjustment worth making: the greater subtleties of these performances more than make up for the lack of sheer oomph and huge percussion forces. Just hearing the way the natural horns cut through and blend with the rest of the ensemble (which includes theorbo and recorder) is a delightful experience that makes these so-familiar pieces sound new again. And the excellent SACD sound (compatible with standard CD players) helps keep all the musical lines clean and crisp, producing performances that uplift as well as entertain.

      The new SACD of music by Jean-Féry Rebel and Jean-Philippe Rameau has equally fine sound, used to equally good advantage in music by two of Handel’s French contemporaries. Rameau is by far the more famous of these two composers, and the extended suite from his Castor et Pollux shows him in top form, evoking emotion effectively while producing well-balanced pieces with real lilt to them – including some highly danceable faster sections (the brief Air des Athlètes sounds as if it would require considerable athleticism even today). In some ways, though, Rebel’s Les Élémens is more interesting than Rameau’s suite, because its first and longest section is a six-minute portrayal of Chaos that starts with an extraordinary dissonant chord containing all the tones from the initial key. This sort of experimentation was not unheard of in the 18th century – in fact, Heinrich Ignaz Biber had practiced something like it in the 17th century in his sonata La battalia (1673) and other works. Nevertheless, Rebel’s willingness to assault the ears of his refined audience remains surprising and is highly effective even today, long after audiences have heard the “Tristan chord” and every other sort of dissonance. The remainder of Les Élémens is equally well wrought if not so overtly intense, with effective tone painting of earth (bass), water (flutes), air (portrayed by long-held notes contrasted with cadences) and fire (fast violin runs). The 25-member L’Orfeo Barockorchester under Michi Gaigg plays with careful attention to performance practice of this music’s time (here, A=392 hz) and also with great spirit, making both Rebel and Rameau come thoroughly alive for today’s audiences.

      The CD of Haydn concertos by the Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmut Müller-Brühl is not quite up to the standards set by the other two discs, although everything on it is played very well and the music has a pleasant familiarity. The main problem here, and the reason the CD gets a (+++) rating rather than a higher one, is some confusion about what performance practice for these works ought to be. This ensemble used to play on period instruments (under the name Capella Clementina), but then switched to modern ones so as better to accommodate the requirements of modern concert halls. That is an understandable decision, whether one agrees with it or not. Certainly Müller-Brühl understands how Haydn would have been played in his own time, and attempts to perform these works in accordance with that understanding. But in a recording, any advantage of using modern instruments disappears, and the CD has a bright and forthright sound that is somewhat too much for these intimate concertos. The Horn Concerto, in particular, suffers from Dmitri Babanov’s very full tone on his modern instrument – the horn and orchestra seem out of balance. The Harpsichord and Trumpet Concertos, in contrast, work well. But the Double Concerto, intended for violin and harpsichord (and so described throughout the CD), is for some reason played on violin and fortepiano – a hard-to-understand decision that significantly changes the music’s balance and overall sound. These are attractive works and are nicely played here, but it is hard to escape the feeling that they would sound better with a little more attention to the way Haydn intended them to be performed.

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