Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 41, 44 (“Trauer”) and 49 (“La Passione”). Arion Baroque Orchestra conducted by Gary Cooper. Early-music.com. $16.99.
Herbert von Karajan Memorial Concert. Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.
Just when it seems there cannot possibly be anything new to hear in Haydn’s music, along comes the Arion Baroque Orchestra with performances of three middle-period symphonies that are so good and so different from what others have offered that they make this grand master of the symphony sound entirely new and fresh again. These are truly remarkable renditions of Symphonies Nos. 41, 44 and 49, in which the very small size of the orchestra (17 players, including conductor Gary Cooper at the harpsichord) makes the symphonies seem larger and far more forward-looking than they sound when played by bigger ensembles. These were, after all, works written for a small group – the Arion’s size – and not for the larger ensembles that Haydn would later be able to use in Paris and London. How much Haydn did with barely more than a dozen instruments, how much virtuosity he required of every single player, and how much intensity the Arion members bring to this music, are all matters of astonishment. Symphony No. 41 in C, the earliest work here and the only one in a major key, is brighter and more festive in this version – which approximates Haydn’s original concept – than in the more overdone revision in which it is usually heard, complete with trumpets and drums. The way Haydn achieves his upbeat effects without those brass and percussion instruments is quite remarkable. No. 44 in E minor, whose slow movement (which Haydn wanted played at his own funeral) provides the only relief from unremitting intensity, is filled with emotional outbursts (“listen” to the silences in the first movement) and highly learned but never dry form (the minuet is a canon between upper and lower parts). The small size and precision playing of the Arion orchestra bring out both the intensity and the structural elements with extraordinary clarity. And the performance of No. 49 in F minor is nothing short of astonishing. This is one of the high points of Haydn’s oeuvre, with all four movements in minor and only the trio of the third movement producing a few rays of light in a major key. Dark and impassioned, the symphony in the Arion players’ hands drops listeners immediately into despair and keeps them in melancholy throughout, eventually making melancholia itself a pleasant state through Haydn’s sheer melodic genius. The first movement here is the slow one, in the old Sonata da chiesa form, and the second movement is taken very fast, pulling the ear in new directions without ever letting it escape from the symphony’s tonic key. The players maintain this level of intensity throughout, capping a remarkable CD that will give any listener even greater respect for Haydn’s genius.
The word “genius” was sometimes applied to Herbert von Karajan, too, although in our modern age it is a description used rather more loosely than it used to be. The longtime Berlin Philharmonic conductor attracted other adjectives, too, however, from “Nazi” (he joined the party not once but twice) to “martinet.” Still, there is no doubt that he raised the Berlin Philharmonic to the very highest levels, making it competitive even with the splendid Vienna Philharmonic of Karajan’s time. And while many of Karajan’s performances could be willful and stiff – especially a number of those later in his career – it is hard to argue with the very high esteem in which he has long been held as one of the world’s greatest conductors. Last year, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Karajan’s birth, a special memorial concert was held at the Vienna Musikverein; it is now available on DVD. In some ways the music and musicians here are perfect choices. Karajan discovered Anne-Sophie Mutter when she was 13, in 1976, inviting her to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. She and Karajan recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto together, and it is that work that she plays on the DVD. Mutter’s near-icy manner and imperious on-stage presence strongly reflect Karajan’s own approach to his podium work, and her handling of the concerto seems to provide a direct connection with her onetime mentor (who died in 1989). Mutter also plays the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin, although this seems more a violinist’s encore than part of the tribute to Karajan. The other music here fares less well: it is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, whose heart-on-its-sleeve emotionalism was never Karajan’s strong suit. And Seiji Ozawa was not the best choice to conduct this symphony or, indeed, the whole concert: he is a disciple of Leonard Bernstein rather than of Karajan, but lacks Bernstein’s uncanny ability (when Bernstein was at his best) to meld strong emotionalism with a fine understanding of musical structure. Ozawa is simply sloppy, leaning into every nuance of Tchaikovsky’s pathos without providing the sort of firm underpinning that was Karajan’s specialty. It is thanks to Mutter’s playing rather than Ozawa’s conducting that this DVD gets a high (+++) rating. The two musicians also talk about Karajan on the DVD – Mutter has more interesting insights – and there are some well-chosen film clips of Karajan’s career to round out the presentation. This is a very good tribute concert that would have been better if it had featured a conductor whose style was more in tune with Karajan’s own – which was certainly not perfect, but which retains tremendous power even today, as many of the recordings that Karajan himself left behind amply demonstrate.