April 30, 2015


Michael Haydn: String Quartets (complete). Salzburger Haydn-Quintett (Hiro Kurosaki and Frank Stadler, violins; Herbert Lindsberger and David Glidden, violas; Josetxu Obregón, cello). CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

The Bach Project: Organ Works, Volume 1. Todd Fickley, Schnitger Organ (1721), St. Michaëlskerk, Zwolle, The Netherlands/Hauptwerk. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Schumann: Märchenerzählungen; Charles Martin Loeffler: Deux Rhapsodies; August Klughardt: Schilflieder; Robert Kahn: Serenade in F minor. Ensemble Schumann (Thomas Gallant, oboe; Steve Larson, viola; Sally Pinkas, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Couperin: Les Nations—Sonades et Suites de Simphonies en Trio. Juilliard Baroque (Monica Huggett and Cynthia Roberts, violins; Sandra Miller, flute; Gonzalo X. Ruiz, oboe; Dominic Teresi, bassoon; Daniel Swenberg, theorbo and Baroque guitar; Sarah Cunningham, viola da gamba; Kenneth Weiss, harpsichord). Naxos. $25.99 (2 CDs).

     Franz Joseph Haydn wrote in just about every musical form in existence in his time, but not that of the string quintet – he said no one ever asked him to. However, his younger brother, Michael (1737-1806), delved into this particular form five times, and although his quintets are so rarely performed as to be genuine oddities, a new CPO recording shows them to be highly worthy works deserving of much greater familiarity. Michael Haydn is perhaps best known nowadays for writing “Mozart’s” Symphony No. 37 – Mozart wrote only the introduction to the first movement. But he was a more-significant musical force in his own time, although never at his brother’s level. That contemporary judgment is reinforced by the performances by the very fine Salzburger Haydn-Quintett: this is music that breaks no significant new ground for its time, but is poised, elegant, well-balanced and thoroughly well-made. The composer actually designated only one of these works (in F, Perger 110, MH 367) as a straightforward “quintetto.” He called another (in C, Perger 108, MH 187) a “notturno/quintetto” and a third (in G, Perger 109, MH 189) simply a “notturno.” These designations show how Michael Haydn used the second viola to darken the overall tone of this music and give it a more “nocturnal” feeling. He also had movements dip frequently into minor-key episodes despite these works’ home major keys – an effective device managed skillfully. Each of the remaining two quintets (in B-flat, Perger 105, MH 412, and in F, Perger 112, MH 411) is labeled “divertimento.” Each of them has more than the four movements of the other quintets: each contains a second minuet and a stately, well-formed set of variations. They are not, however, appreciably lighter in structure or tone than the “notturno” and “quintetto” works. Indeed, there is little overall variation evident in the composer’s approach to this instrumental form: the pieces date to as early as 1773 and as late as 1786, but unlike his older brother, Michael Haydn tended to evolve formally to a certain point and then, having found a sort of musical comfort zone, to remain within it. Indeed, “comfortable” is the overall feeling generated by his quintets: this is music reflecting the best mid-to-late-18th-century techniques and sensibilities without pushing beyond them, reminding modern listeners of a vanished world of elegance and style, and of emotions portrayed musically only so deeply and no further.

     On the face of it, there is nothing especially unusual about yet another recording of Bach’s organ music, not even one ambitiously designated the first volume of The Bach Project. Most of the works performed by Todd Fickley on a new MSR Classics release are ones with which listeners will be familiar: Toccata, Adagio & Fugue in C, BWV 564; An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653; Trio Sonata No. 1, BWV 525; Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543; Partite Diverse Sopra il Corale “Sei Gegrüsset, Jesu, Gütig,” BWV 768; and Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582. Also on the face of it, Fickley’s choice of an organ on which to perform is unexceptionable and intelligent. But the superficial “just another fine recording of Bach’s organ music” response to this release is misplaced, because in fact the CD is a showcase for “virtual pipe organ” software called Hauptwerk. A visit to www.hauptwerk.com is worthwhile for anyone considering purchase of this disc, because the software itself is fascinating and its concept unusual enough to merit some serious thought about the differences between real pipe organs and digital keyboards that reproduce organ sounds. That reproduction is frequently, to put it bluntly, awful. The ease of use of a readily portable digital keyboard is inarguable, and for many people, the difference in sound between what such a keyboard generates and what pipe organs produce is meaningless when it comes to typical hymns and other church music – the main pieces with which many people associate organs and the primary ones for which organs are nowadays used. Great organ music, however – whether by Bach or such other towering figures as Widor and Vierne – always sounds constricted and compromised when performed on a typical digital organ. Hauptwerk intends to change that by a complex and well-thought-out sampling technique designed to mimic, in great detail, the exact sound of specific great organs of the world. So what Fickley plays on here is not actually the 1721 Dutch organ located in St. Michaëlskerk, Zwolle – it is the Hauptwerk version of that organ, created digitally and reproduced through a modern electronic instrument. On a strictly musical basis, Fickley’s performances are fine, historically aware although not imbued with all elements of historic performance practices. The actual sound of the music is fine as well, and largely indistinguishable from the sound of a pipe organ (only listeners who really know the specific one sampled here by Hauptwerk will be able to judge how well its sound is reproduced). The whole project raises some intriguing questions, though. Old organs, no matter how often updated and how well maintained, have inevitable quirks, reflected in clicks, balky responses, extraneous noises, and other odd little operating sounds. Hauptwerk eliminate all of these: it samples, very accurately, the exact sound made by an organ’s pipes, but not the organist’s technique in eliciting those sounds. Indeed, the whole notion is to let modern organists, wherever located, employ their technique on virtual copies of great organs located somewhere else. But is the absence of old instruments’ age-related elements a good thing? Do the difficulties of playing the old pipe organs make them sound better or worse? Do those difficulties produce a more-authentic listening experience, or one with which extraneous elements constantly interfere? A listener’s response to these philosophical questions will have a great deal to do with his or her enjoyment of, or disappointment in, Fickley’s Hauptwerk recording.

     There are no electronic instrumental elements involved in another MSR Classics release, this one featuring Ensemble Schumann – but there are other unusual things about it, including the repertoire and some instrumental choices. The latter are germane to the ensemble’s recording of Schumann’s late (1853) Märchenerzählungen, a four-movement work for clarinet or violin, viola and piano. The choice of an oboe rather than Schumann’s designated instruments significantly changes the character of some aspects of this music. The oboe is less suited than the clarinet to the ominous, dark opening and other elements of the second movement, and the viola-oboe duet of the third movement is less effective than one involving viola and clarinet. To be sure, it could be argued that choosing Schumann’s option of a violin also alters the character of these sections, but Schumann was aware of the differences that would result and clearly approved them. Using an oboe, even when it is played as well as it is here by Thomas Gallant, results in tonal colors than the composer did not anticipate but could surely have called for had he wanted them. Gallant, Steve Larson and Sally Pinkas do perform very well together, and the lyricism, grace and rhythmic drive of Märchenerzählungen come through well, even if the overall sound of the piece is somewhat strange. The other works on this CD are far less frequently heard, and some listeners will not know their composers at all. Deux Rhapsodies by violinist-composer Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935) dates to 1901 and bears the intriguing titles L’Étang (“The Pond”) and La Cornemuse (“Bagpipes”), and Loeffler – a careful and methodical composer, if not an especially inspired one – presents some effective tone painting in both. Schilflieder (“Reed Songs”) by August Klughardt (1847-1902) is an earlier work, written in 1872, with more of Romanticism and less of Impressionism about it. Klughardt called the five movements Phantasiestüke (“Imaginative Pieces”) and wrote them for piano, oboe or violin, and viola. They are based on poems by Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) and are suitably reflective of multiple moods: the atmosphere of Lenau’s poems comes through clearly even without a listener knowing their specifics. The final work on this disc is the Serenade in F minor by Robert Kahn (1865-1951), and it is perhaps the most historically fascinating piece here, for all that it is the shortest and is very little known. Although it dates to 1922, it is written in an essentially Brahmsian style (Kahn knew Brahms, who was so impressed with the younger composer that he offered to tutor him and did help him informally). Kahn’s is a well-crafted work, not terribly deep but elegant and genial. It is in a single continuous movement that breaks down into a relaxed first part and a moderately fast second one, each with its own contrasting middle section. What is fascinating is that when Kahn brought the work to his publisher, it was as a trio for oboe, horn and piano – and the publisher, Simrock, said it would barely sell in that form and needed to be rewritten for a standard piano trio (with violin and cello). That would have created two versions – but Kahn went overboard and ended up arranging the work for nine performance combinations: piano with oboe, violin, clarinet or viola; plus horn, viola or cello. The oboe/viola/piano version heard here serves the music well, bringing forth the contrasts within the parts (especially the Vivace section in the first part) and perhaps making listeners wonder if anyone would care to release a CD containing all the versions of this work. But Simrock would no doubt observe that it would probably barely sell.

     The instrumental combinations are of a strictly Baroque cast in the very impressive Juilliard Baroque performance of François Couperin’s Les Nations, a set of four extended and elaborate works devoted to the major Catholic powers of Europe in Couperin’s time (1668-1733). The four are intended to represent France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and the Savoy dynasty of Piedmont, but in fact their elements are solely French and Italian (in the dance movements, more the former than the latter) and, not surprisingly, often sound Corellian: Couperin acknowledged his debt to Corelli and in fact introduced Corelli’s Trio Sonata form to France. Each part of Les Nations includes one of those trio sonatas, followed by a dance suite, and each part is scored simply for two violins and continuo. But Les Nations is rarely performed that way: Couperin is known to have had access to a variety of chamber musicians at the court of Louis XIV, so modern performances – including this one – frequently fill out the bare bones of Les Nations with instruments such as those heard here. The result is a more-colorful performance that is arguably just as authentic as one simply using violins and continuo. Certainly the Juilliard Baroque musicians sound excellent on this Naxos release, playing individual movements with style and finesse and providing fullness that is actually lush when appropriate, as for instance in the chaconne of L’Impériale. Many movements are short, and at times the quick transitions from instrument to instrument can prevent the creation of a unified mood. Taken as a whole, though, this recording of Les Nations uses its instrumental mixture very well, producing a performance that is historically informed, nicely paced, very well played, and quite interesting to hear even some 300 years after Couperin’s original was published in 1726.

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