August 02, 2012
(++++) IN OLDEN TIMES
Haydn: The Creation. Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Keith Jameson, tenor; Kevin Deas, bass-baritone; Boston Baroque conducted by Martin Pearlman. Linn Records. $34.99 (2 SACDs).
Los Ministriles in the New World. Piffaro, The Renaissance Band. Navona. $16.99.
Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9. Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch. Music & Arts. $29.99 (2 CDs).
The brilliance and beauty of Haydn’s 1798 oratorio, The Creation (Die Schöpfung) come through most clearly when the work is performed on period instruments by an ensemble of appropriate size that is well-versed in the style in which this monumental hour-and-a-half work was written. Actually, the “appropriate size” issue is the least significant one, since The Creation was played at the time Haydn wrote it by orchestras with widely differing numbers of players. But using the correct instruments, playing in the correct style, and ornamenting the arias with understanding and musicality – these are real keys to the success of the work. Boston Baroque, under Martin Pearlman, holds all those keys and knows how to use them to unlock the manifest beauties of the score: the group’s performance is outstanding. The Creation was written to a German text, but an English one was provided in Haydn’s time and is sometimes used; the booklet with the Boston Baroque performance includes both texts, but the actual singing is done in German – which is more appropriate and fits the musical lines better. And the lines themselves are wonderfully brought out by the 40-person orchestra. Haydn’s tone painting in The Creation is sometimes dismissed as naïve, other times deemed a highly effective handling of the words. Pearlman clearly finds it very admirable, and brings out, with care, everything from the amazing portrayal of chaos that opens the oratorio to the sounds representing specific elements of creation (from the brilliant C major chord for “light” to the sequences tone-painting individual animals) to the unusual (for Haydn’s time) inclusion of trombones and contrabassoon within the ensemble. Lovely, melodic, carefully shaped and nicely ornamented singing by Amanda Forsythe, Keith Jameson, Kevin Deas and the 25-member chorus fits beautifully and fully idiomatically within the sound world that Haydn created, resulting in a mixture of fervor and beauty that makes the rather ordinary text shine through, again and again, with style and grace. Hearing this performance transports the listener back in time to an age when Haydn’s music was fresh, new and exciting, providing a chance to hear The Creation with all the joy and wonder that Haydn so successfully packed into it.
A trip even further back in time – 30 trips, actually, one for each track – is offered by Piffaro, The Renaissance Band, on a CD entitled Los Ministriles in the New World. There is a fascinating premise underlying this beautifully played recording: Spanish composers of the 16th and 17th centuries bringing their works to the New World and being influenced, in their turn, by Indian and African music. Few, if any, of the composers here will be known to listeners; they include such names as Antonio de Cabezón (c. 1510-1566), Diego Ortiz (c. 1510-1570), Francisco Lopez Capillas (c. 1615-1673), Hernando Franco (1532-1585), and Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500-1553), as well as a number of anonymous works. And none of these pieces is of particular depth or duration: they last from one to four minutes. But there is beauty aplenty in these brief items, and Piffaro provides a fascinating journey through the many styles of music from this time period, from entertaining dances and songs to uplifting motets and masses. There is no particular order, chronological or in terms of content, to the CD, and no particular relationship between one piece and the next. And it does not matter. Collectively, these works show the musical dynamism of the New World from 100 to more than 250 years before the establishment of the United States as an independent nation, during a time when Spain was the region’s dominant colonial power. The period-music sound of Piffaro and the inherent charms of these small gems transport listeners to an age of refinement and elegance, as well as one of conquest and ferocity – all built upon a religious foundation that some of these pieces make explicit and that others simply take for granted. The experience of this CD is an involving and salutary one.
The times are not chronologically as “olden” as those of Haydn or Spanish composers of the 16th and 17th centuries in a new Bruckner recording, but in some ways the interpretative distance that listeners will travel when listening to Hans Knappertsbusch’s recordings of the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies is longer than that traversed when listening to Boston Baroque or Piffaro. Those two ensembles make every effort to reproduce the sound of the music they play through instruments and interpretations that are in accord with the practices of the times when the music was written. Knappertsbusch’s Bruckner goes the other way – and as a result opens a sonic window to the past that is very different from those through which we see and hear Classical and Renaissance music. These are live Bruckner performances, the Eighth with the Vienna Philharmonic from October 1961 and the Ninth with the Berlin Philharmonic (and an unusually noisy audience) from January 1950. And they are performances in which Knappertsbusch (1888-1965), as was his wont, uses the first editions of the symphonies – editions now long discredited for errors and inconsistencies – and modifies those editions to try to bring out what he considers to be Bruckner’s intentions more clearly than the scores themselves do. Nowadays this approach is sacrilege, even in the case of Bruckner, whose “real” intentions are impossible to know for many of his oft-rewritten symphonic works. But in Knappertsbusch’s time, which was also that of such other famed Bruckner conductors as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Eugen Jochum and Jascha Horenstein, there was nothing untoward about modifying this composer’s “difficult” and even “turgid” scores to make them “clearer.” It is therefore with a different set of ears (so to speak) that listeners must approach a recording like this one – hearing it within its time, if possible, rather than as a throwback from our own. And on that basis, Knappertsbusch’s performances are remarkably involving, just as he intended them to be. He varies tempos frequently, sometimes pauses before a big climax (that is, pauses at times other than those at which Bruckner indicated a pause), and does not hesitate to choose speeds that are considerably at variance with those of other conductors of his time (as, for example, in the Scherzo of the Ninth). He adds or removes elements for effect, and he uses portamento liberally (especially in the Ninth) – an approach that is actually more authentic than that in more-recent recordings. Ultimately, the only fair way to judge these Knappertsbusch recordings is on their own terms: do they communicate effectively? And the answer is decidedly yes: they are broad and dramatic by turns, always intense and committed, and (despite the execrable sound, especially in the Ninth) uniformly well-played. What they communicate is not really Bruckner; certainly not Bruckner as we now know him from modern critical editions. Call this “Bruckner-prime,” then, or call this “Alte Bruckner” and more-modern performances “Neue Bruckner.” By any name, Knappertsbusch’s performances are intelligent, committed and worthy ones, redolent of a time long gone in musical terms even though, historically, they are little more than half a century old.