June 14, 2012
(++++) LIGHT, LITHE AND LOVELY
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 82-87. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra conducted by Bruno Weil. Tafelmusik Media. $18.99 (2 CDs).
Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks; Concerti a Due Cori Nos. 1-3. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra conducted by Jeanne Lamon. Tafelmusik Media. $16.99.
The creation of Tafelmusik Media by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra has swiftly shown itself as an endeavor that goes far beyond the “vanity project” that it might otherwise seem to be. This new label is releasing a variety of recent and not-so-recent recordings by Canada’s very fine period-instrument ensemble, and even the re-releases are proving to be ones that stand with the very best recordings made in more recent years. The two-CD set of Haydn’s “Paris” symphonies is a perfect case in point. Under Bruno Weil’s direction, these symphonies have six distinctive sounds that nevertheless possess enough points in common to mark the works as a set. The odd-numbered ones were apparently composed slightly earlier (in the order 83, 87, 85) than the even-numbered ones (written in the order 82, 84, 86), but they are all of a piece in their exceptionally well-wrought design, their frequent bows to French taste (primarily in the Menuets), their pervasive melodiousness, and the apparent effortlessness with which Haydn weaves contrapuntal elements in with sonata and variation forms. The symphonies are in six different keys, reflective of their many different moods, from the somewhat stern first movement of No. 83 (“The Hen”) in G minor to the forthright brightness of No. 87 in A major. Weil does not go out of his way to emphasize the elements that earned “The Hen” and No. 82 (“The Bear”) their nicknames, simply having the works played as Haydn intended, with the tunes and rhythms evoking in a listener whatever images his or her mind may call up. Whether in the majesty of the first movement of No. 84, the French-inspired dotted rhythms of the Adagio opening of No. 85 (“La reine de France”), or the highly unusual “Capriccio – Largo” of No. 86, Weil shapes the music with care and elegance, and the orchestra plays with spirit and a sure sense of understanding of the music itself and of the period instruments with which the players re-create it. There are many fine performances of the “Paris” symphonies, in both period-instrument and modern-instrument versions; this one, recorded in 1994 and originally released by Sony, remains among those at the pinnacle of effectiveness and beauty.
Sony also did the original release of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra recording of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and Concerti a Due Cori Nos. 1-3, recorded in 1997. Although not quite as convincing as the Haydn performances, the Handel ones – under the orchestra’s music director, Jeanne Lamon – are very well played and thoroughly versed in period practices. Music for the Royal Fireworks is a delight, even though it is heard here in the more-modest “indoor” performing version that Handel made after originally scoring the work for a rather monstrous complement of military-style band instruments (60-plus winds, extensive deployment of percussion, and no strings). Despite the modest size of the orchestra here, the performance is bright, resonant and full-sounding, with the extended opening Ouverture given a particularly thoughtful as well as triumphal reading. The three Concerti a Due Cori, which feature (as the title indicates) choruses of wind instruments – oboes and bassoons in No. 1; oboes, bassoons and horns in Nos. 2 and 3 – are somewhat less successful. There is nothing to fault in the playing, which is top-notch; but the music comes across as rather bland and the three works as not especially distinguished from each other (even though the recording separates Nos. 2 and 3, which are both in F major, by placing No. 1 in B-flat major between them). These concerti are not all cut from exactly the same cloth: the wind complement is different, as noted, and No. 3 is more serious in overall tone than the other two. Here, though, they seem to blend into a single extended work – certainly pleasant and interesting to hear, but less than fully compelling. Nevertheless, the excellence of the playing and the careful (if perhaps a shade too careful) conducting make this a first-class performance with a sure sense of style and admirably close attention to Handel’s rhythmic vitality.