July 02, 2015
(++++) IN SEARCH OF SONIC AUTHENTICITY
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Orchester Wiener Akademie conducted by Martin Haselböck. Alpha. $18.99.
Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-5. Nils-Erik Sparf, violin; Uppsala Chamber Orchestra. Swedish Society. $34.99 (2 CDs).
Hummel: Sonata for Piano and Flute (or Violin), Op. 50; Grand Sonata for Piano and Violin (or Flute), Op. 64; Variations alla Monferina for Cello and Piano, Op. 54; Adagio, Variations and Rondo on a Russian Theme for Piano, Flute and Cello, Op. 78. Linde Brunmayr-Tutz, flute; Jaap ter Linden, cello; Bart van Oort, piano. Fra Bernardo. $18.99.
Brahms: Piano Trios Nos. 1-3. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Tanja Tetzlaff, cello; Lars Vogt, piano. Ondine. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Nowadays the use of original instruments or replicas, original-size orchestras, and original manuscripts and tempos for well-known works may not always be enough. Some enterprising conductors and ensembles want to give modern audiences the actual sound of music as composers originally intended it – by performing it with as much historical accuracy as possible and in as historically correct a setting as can be. When this approach is well done, it can be truly revelatory, as it is in the new Beethoven CD from Orchester Wiener Akademie conducted by Martin Haselböck, on the Alpha label. Haselböck is an erudite, meticulous conductor with impeccable historical/academic credentials and a fine feel for Beethoven’s music. This disc and the ones to follow in his Beethoven cycle will take 21st-century listeners on an aural tour of the venues where Beethoven’s symphonies were originally performed – to the extent possible (only four of the six original locations remain). Add Haselböck’s careful attention to the size of the orchestra and the instruments within it, his study of Beethoven’s indicated tempos, and his overall sense of the structure of the music not only of Beethoven but also of other composers of the time, and you have a recipe for a very unusual Beethoven cycle with some genuinely new elements. It is, however, important not to take this “authenticity” matter too far: obviously the venues that survive are no longer in exactly the same shape they were in during Beethoven’s lifetime, and obviously even instruments from that time have required maintenance and repair in the last 200 years – and so forth. Nevertheless, there is something exhilarating about experiencing the sound of Beethoven as closely as possible to the way it was heard by the people who were first exposed to these now-iconic pieces of music – and Haselböck provides as close an approximation of that experience as modern listeners are ever likely to receive. Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 were recorded at Landhaussaal, Palais Niederösterreich, in Vienna, and these live performances are simply brimming with ebullience, enthusiasm, bounce and an appropriate level of Classical-era poise and balance. Beethoven’s debt to Haydn and Mozart comes through particularly clearly here – as do the many ways in which, even in these first two symphonies, he was staking a claim to territory of his own. This is, in a sense, a recording for specialists – many listeners will not really hear substantial differences between these readings and others using instruments of this type and an orchestra of this size. But anyone who listens to Haselböck’s rendition of the symphonies will enjoy the careful pacing, the ease with which the orchestra handles the music (although the Second, at least, was not particularly easy for those who played it originally!), and the overall feeling of elegance that comes through so clearly here.
The approximation of the sound of Mozart’s violin concertos in a new Swedish Society recording featuring Nils-Erik Sparf comes largely from Sparf’s delicacy of tone and careful attention to phrasing – coupled with the sensitive and very well-paced playing of the Uppsala Chamber Orchestra, of which Sparf is leader. Having the concertmaster as soloist and conductor was far more common in Mozart’s day than it was to become in later times – after all, even the Strauss family and their competitors in 19th-century Vienna dance halls led from the soloist position. So this is one way in which these concertos sound notably authentic. Another comes from the harpsichord continuo – which is thoroughly appropriate but very rarely heard. And yet another is the result of Sparf’s full understanding of the clarity and lightness inherent in these works, even in their more virtuosic and serious sections. These are nothing at all like the virtuoso concertos of the following century and beyond: yes, the soloist has an important part to play, but his role is closer to that of primus inter pares than to that of a pedestaled antagonist taking on the entire orchestra as if his one instrument is the equal of all the others (that was to be the mode of Paganini and his successors). In Sparf’s hands and those of his orchestra, these concertos are essentially chamber works, reflective conversations among players of equal skill who all have something important to bring to the dialogue. Interestingly, this makes the first three, lesser concertos particularly appealing here: No. 1 clearly shows its ties to the works of Vivaldi and Viotti, No. 2 displays operatic elements in its slow movement, and No. 3 proffers a kind of gentle intimacy that is altogether winning. The last two concertos are also very fine: No. 4 is beautifully crafted and beautifully balanced, with its folksong-like finale especially attractive here, and No. 5 shows itself to have far more attractions than its designation as “Turkish” would indicate – here the orchestral part is as impressive as the improvisation-like elements given to the soloist, especially in the first movement. This is a lovely version of these ever-fresh works that gives the impression of making them sound very much as Mozart himself would have heard them.
The sound of the music of Mozart’s onetime pupil, Hummel, is that of transition – a fact that relegated Hummel’s music to obscurity for many years, since it seemed “neither here nor there” in its position straddling the Classical and Romantic eras. Thankfully, this invariably well-formed, well-balanced music has been heard more and more frequently in recent times, to the point that the “Hummel sound” is now becoming reasonably familiar and is allowing listeners to familiarize themselves with an important element of musical development in the early part of the 19th century. Hummel wrote quite a lot of music to be played by amateurs, which is one reason scholars used to scoff at a good deal of his work – but now listeners have a chance, as in a new Fra Bernardo recording, to hear just how much skill Hummel lavished on this sort of drawing-room music and just how good it can sound when professionally performed. It was as a piano virtuoso that Hummel was most famous in his own time – and very famous he was, too – but in the four works played on this CD, although the piano is frequently dominant, Hummel shows himself highly adept in creating pleasing and technically interesting works for other instruments as well. The Op. 50 and Op. 64 flute-and-piano sonatas both require considerable dexterity on the part of the pianist (they were written for pianos incorporating a number of then-recent innovations), while also needing flute playing of sensitivity, delicacy and considerable skill: like the piano, the flute was changing quickly at this time, and Hummel shows in these works that he understood its capabilities quite well. Linde Brunmayr-Tutz plays an eight-keyed transverse flute here, and it nicely complements Bart van Oort’s 1830s fortepiano sonically, giving listeners aural insight into how Hummel’s sonatas were intended to sound. The two sets of variations provide further involvement in the composer’s sound world. The Op. 54 variations for cello and piano are based on a northern Italian dance called the Monferrina (with two “r’s,” although Hummel’s title uses only one), and here van Oort’s piano blends very well indeed with Jaap ter Linden’s 1703 Milanese cello. And then listeners have a real treat in the form of a trio for piano, flute and cello, an extended and elaborate set of variations on a Russian theme (actually a Ukrainian folk song) popularized in the German-speaking world as Schöne Minke. The little ditty is turned and twisted in multiple directions by Hummel through a set of six variations and a finale, with each of the three performers having a chance to show his or her solo abilities while, at the same time, needing to cooperate fully with the other two to produce a genuinely harmonious musical whole. None of these four pieces is of great significance in musical history, but all are evidence of the vibrancy of amateur as well as professional musical performance in Hummel’s time – and of the very high quality that Hummel brought even to works that were never intended to be heaven-storming in their intensity.
The sound of Hummel’s piano-violin-flute trio is on the unusual side; that of Brahms’ piano-violin-cello trios is far more common. Brahms’ music in his three trios (or four, depending on how you count) is considerably more serious than Hummel’s in his works for home and amateur performance. Brahms’ trios span much of his creative life, from 1854 to 1889, and contain more-personal elements than does much of the rest of his music. A new Ondine recording of the trios by the brother-and-sister team of Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff, along with Lars Vogt, is sensitive to the trios’ many moods and very well played by all three performers. Trio No. 1, heard here in its 1889 revision, is a somewhat uneven blend of youthful enthusiasm, related especially to Brahms’ relationship with Robert and Clara Schumann, and Brahms’ later, more-serene style. The introspective elements get their full due in this performance, which is warm and involving throughout – although, as a result, the Scherzo, which Brahms retained unchanged from the 1854 version, fits a bit uneasily into the whole. Trio No. 2 (1882) is a work of contrasts, with lyrical tenderness and intensity played against each other and a particularly effective set of variations in the not-very-slow slow movement (marked Andante con moto). Trio No. 3 (1884) is the shortest of these works and the only one in a minor key (C minor). Its passionate first movement, surprisingly gentle Scherzo, dancelike third movement (again not very slow, here Andante grazioso), and urgently driving finale produce a work whose contrasts are its defining characteristic – but whose totality comes across as effective and unified here. Despite the fine performances, though, this is a (+++) release – because it is unconscionably overpriced. The total time of the three trios in these performances is 83 minutes, just over the 80-to-81-minute limit for a single CD; so splitting the recording onto two discs is necessary. But charging full price for those two discs is simply unfair to listeners – all the more so because a simple, elegant solution to the cost issue was readily available. Brahms’ Trio No. 1 exists not only in the 1889 version heard here but also in its original version of 1854, in which three of the four movements are wholly or substantially different. It would have been fascinating (and instructive) to hear both versions of this trio, and obviously there is ample room for both on the CDs, the first of which runs just 49 minutes and the second only 34. It is most unfortunate that this interesting approach was not taken here and that a decision was made to charge so much for a set of fine performances that, however, will not be, for most listeners, worth what they cost on this recording.