March 01, 2018
(++++) ON THE LIGHTER SIDE?
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 26 (“Lamentatione”) and 86; Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 3. Aisslinn Nosky, violin; Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.
Trumpet Concertos. Brilliant Classics. $59.99 (10 CDs).
New Year’s Concert 2018. Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Riccardo Muti. Sony. $16.99 (2 CDs).
The notion that Haydn’s symphonies are on the light side both emotionally and in terms of scoring seems to persist even though there is really no justification for it. The reason may be that the poise, balance and continual flickers of good humor in many of the symphonies are mistaken in some quarters for a lack of depth. But performances such as those by the Handel and Haydn Society under Harry Christophers should lay to rest this incorrect evaluation of the composer. These CORO recordings are combining Haydn symphonies in unusual ways and coupling them with violin concertos performed and directed by the ensemble’s leader, Aisslinn Nosky – and every one of the recordings is a gem. The latest of them offers an unusual degree of depth and intensity in the Haydn symphonies, to such an extent that the Mozart concerto accompanying them seems on the galant side, if scarcely frivolous. The earlier Haydn here is a moving D minor symphony, somewhat strangely arranged in three movements that end with its Menuet, and known as “Lamentatione” because of its inclusion of a plainchant melody associated with the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Symphony No. 26 was intended for performance during Holy Week, and it is possible that Haydn deliberately omitted a finale so the Passion story itself could provide a conclusion. Christophers and the ensemble, which numbers 35 musicians at full complement, deliver this work with considerable intensity and excellent understanding of period style, showing the music to share Sturm und Drang sensibilities while going beyond them in the service of a higher spiritual cause. The contrast with the D major Symphony No. 86, the penultimate “Paris” symphony, is thus especially pronounced. Written for a larger orchestra – indeed, a bigger one than the Handel and Haydn Society fields – this is a work of high drama and unusual structure, with its second, Largo movement labeled “Capriccio” and being constructed as both a sonata and a rondo. There is tremendous cleverness in this large-scale work, from a kind of false ending in the first movement to a finale that lures listeners in with quietness before bursting forth in full instrumental regalia. The symphony sweeps along with a kind of inevitability, a sort of rightness that characterizes Haydn’s later work – as if there is no way other than this that any part of the music could possibly have been composed. The perfection of form and excellence of instrumental balance – which Christophers is especially adept at bringing out – do credit both to the composer and to the players. Separating these two very different Haydn symphonies is a Mozart concerto, No. 3, played by Nosky with wit, charm, elegance and considerable flair that is nevertheless historically aware and appropriate. Mozart eschewed showy violin writing for its own sake, requiring in its stead a subtle appreciation of the delicate intricacy with which soloist and ensemble are interwoven. A fine performance – and this one is very fine – is also cognizant of unusual instrumental touches in the concerto, such as the use of flutes rather than oboes in the second movement and the extensive woodwind writing in the finale. The whole CD is filled to the brim with a wonderful mixture of musicianship and joie de vivre, a characteristic that is certainly not to be confused with superficiality.
On the other hand, there is a certain surface-level rather than in-depth charm to some of the works offered by Brilliant Classics in an exceptionally wide-ranging CD box simply called Trumpet Concertos. The 10-disc set is something of an oddity, including performances recorded over nearly two decades (1989-2006) and featuring no fewer than seven trumpet virtuosos: Reinhold Friedrich, Ludwig Güttler, Thomas Hammes, Peter Leiner, Joachim Pliquett, Otto Sauter and Franz Wagnermeyer. Throw in a wide variety of ensembles accompanying the soloists and you have a bit of a mishmash even before considering the specific music offered here. When you do consider it, matters become even more complex, if not confused. Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto does make an appearance here, and so do some other “usual suspects” in the trumpet-and-orchestra repertoire, including Hummel’s wonderful concerto. But much of the material comes from composers who are scarcely household names. The single composer given the greatest space here – two full CDs – is Johann Melchior Molter, whose Trumpet Concerto No. 1 is well-known but whose many other trumpet works are heard very rarely indeed. Molter turns out to be a very fine if somewhat superficial composer for the trumpet – one whose less-known works are as well-made as his single well-known one. Two other composers’ works are offered at considerable length: Telemann, not surprisingly, gets a full CD, while Torelli, more unusually, gets a full one as well. Some works known to trumpeters and trumpet fanciers show up here to good effect – there is nothing by Mozart, who did not write a trumpet concerto, but there is a concerto by his father, Leopold, and one by his friend, Michael Haydn (along with a charming Michael Haydn Concertino). And there are pieces here to which the word “concerto” scarcely applies in any traditional way, including Handel’s Water Music Suite No. 2 and Heinrich Biber’s Balletti à 6 (there is also music here by Biber’s son, Carl Heinrich Biber). And lest listeners think all this trumpet music traces to the Baroque and Classical periods, there is also a concerto here that is quite modern: Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto, with its prominent trumpet part. Music by Edison Denisov (1929-1996) and Alexander Arutiunian (1920-2012) – the latter’s 1950 concerto is in fact moderately well-known – also brings this CD set firmly into the modern era. The material here is so scattered that, as in any anthology and this one more than most, listeners are likely to find some items far more congenial than others. Add to that the facts that some of this music is intended to be rather light and jovial, while other works are quite serious – and that some of the 28 composers here, such as Franz Querfurth and Richard Mudge, are almost wholly unknown today – and you have a perfect multi-disc “discovery” set for listeners who enjoy the sound of the trumpet and would like to juxtapose their hearing of familiar works with a chance to absorb some that are very unfamiliar indeed.
The pleasures of familiarity, and indeed of lightness, are not to be gainsaid when it comes to the wonderful New Year’s Concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic. Year after year, this superb orchestra indulges itself, its guest conductors and its audiences with a mixture of extremely well-known and very, very Viennese tunes with some buoyant works performed for the first time in this context. Sony’s two-CD set of the 2018 performance, as usual recorded live at the Vienna Musikverein, includes 19 pieces, seven of which have never been performed at a New Year’s Concert before – and one of which comes from a composer, Alfons Czibulka, not preciously heard at all at these galas. The conductor is an old hand at these performances: Riccardo Muti previously led the celebrations in 1993, 1997, 2000 and 2004. Yet he is something of a weak point in what is otherwise a super-enjoyable recording: Muti drags out too many of the pieces and over-exaggerates unnecessary tempo changes in too many others (his Roses from the South waltz is a particular disappointment, and his Suppé Boccaccio overture, which gets its first-ever New Year’s Concert performance, is actually dull, which would seem to be impossible). But some of the music has such infectious high spirits that Muti, content to let it flower as its composers wished, delivers all the brightness that the occasion demands – as in the back-to-back readings of Josef Strauss’ Eingesendet and Johann Strauss Jr.’s Unter Donner und Blitz, two of the best Polka schnell works in the repertoire. There is an hour and three-quarters of music here and thus plenty for listeners to revel in, despite Muti’s missteps – although, oddly, Sony nowhere provides the timings of the tracks or the CDs as a whole. Omitting the applause interspersed throughout both discs, the timings of the first disc are 3:18, 9:02, 4:07, 2:10, 8:34, 1:30, 7:21, 9:08, and 4:40; of the second, 2:28, 12:09, 3:53, 4:02, 5:14, 10:18, 1:44, 2:57, 0:24 (the traditional spoken, or rather shouted, New Year’s greeting), 10:51, and 3:22. Those last two tracks on the second CD are the inevitable encores of the Blue Danube waltz and Radetzky March, with the latter – the very last track here – showing both what is right and what is wrong with the performances: the music is wonderful and the audience is noticeably eager to clap along, but Muti makes the march far too ponderous for the sort of upbeat ending designed to usher in a new year. Lighter music certainly has its place in concerts, and there is no more distinguished concert featuring it than this one. There are, however, some conductors who can discard their serious mien long enough to glory in the wonders of music of this sort – probably the best of them all was Carlos Kleiber, some of whose exemplary performances can be found on YouTube. Muti is among the conductors who are somewhat too matter-of-fact about music of this type – a shame, because the spirit-lifting nature of these wonderful pieces is exactly what music lovers worldwide need to buoy their feelings at the start of a new year, and anytime during the year when they want a bit of an emotional boost.