December 24, 2020


Haydn: Symphony No. 100; Missa in angustiis, “Nelson Mass.” Mary Bevan, soprano; Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano; Jeremy Budd, tenor; Sumner Thompson, baritone; Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.

Haydn: Symphony No. 85; Mozart: Mass in C, K317, “Coronation”; Exsultate, Jubilate. Teresa Wakim, soprano; Paula Murrihy, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Cooley, tenor; Sumner Thompson, baritone; Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.

Eric Coates: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—London Bridge; The Selfish Giant; Wood Nymphs; The Enchanted Garden; For Your Delight; Summer Days; Lazy Night; Calling All Workers. BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson. Chandos. $18.99.

Beethoven: String Quartets, Volume 1—Op. 18, Nos. 1-6. Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Parajo-van de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello). Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).

     There are obvious and much-less-obvious ways to arrange multi-disc recordings of closely related pieces of music, and the presentation decisions can have a significant impact on the effects of the interpretations. The Handel and Haydn Society has evolved a very interesting way of offering some of Haydn’s symphonies, which represented “new” music when the group was formed and named in 1815 (Handel was the “old” music at the time). Symphony No. 100, the “Military,” is one of Haydn’s final dozen symphonies and is usually presented in that context, with a couple of other “London” symphonies on the same disc or as part of a multi-CD set including all 12. Not so for Harry Christophers’ ensemble. Christophers uses a different context for Symphony No. 100 on a new recording from CORO, pairing the 1794 symphony with the 1798 “Nelson Mass” – and in so doing providing considerable insight into Haydn’s late style, from the years after he stopped writing symphonies altogether. The symphony itself is delivered with wonderful verve and a firm understanding of period style (and, as always with these performers, on period instruments). And the inclusion of “Turkish” percussion, including a jangling “Turkish crescent,” is handled exceptionally well. Modern listeners inevitably hear the percussion elements in the second and fourth movements of this symphony as bright, upbeat and sonically interesting, but they were much less so – and much more threatening – for Haydn’s original audiences, which had recently experienced battles with Turkish forces. The forcefulness of Christophers’ handling of the percussion is quite apt, and contrasts well with the more-typical Haydnesque elements in the rest of the symphony. The contrast with the “Nelson Mass” is very effective, too. This is, emotionally, a somewhat lighter Mass than might be expected from the composer who had just produced The Creation. The brightness of the end of the Agnus Dei is particularly surprising. But Haydn shows himself throughout to be a master of the forms commonly used in Mass settings, the fugue at the end of the Gloria being especially notable. The pairing of symphony and Mass setting is out of the ordinary but is, for that very reason, notable in itself – and the excellence of the performances, which flow from a very clear understanding of the music of Haydn and his time, more than justifies the unusual nature of the mixture of material.

     Christophers and his ensemble have in fact made it something of a signature to present secular, symphonic music of the Classical era along with sacred material. For example, instead of releasing what would have been a more-typical multi-disc set of Haydn’s “Paris” symphonies (Nos. 82-87), Christophers presents the six symphonies one at a time, pairing each of them with material (symphonic or not) that both complements and highlights each “Paris” work and in so doing sheds new light both on the Haydn symphonies and on the pieces offered with them. Thus, Symphony No. 85 (“La Reine”) gets a beautifully balanced and emotionally satisfying performance from the Handel and Haydn Society – light, fleet and well-paced throughout. But instead of being presented with another “Paris” symphony or two, No. 85 – which dates to 1785-86 – is offered with Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass of 1779 and, equally intriguingly, with the younger composer’s 1773 motet, Exsultate, Jubilate. The highly interesting result is that it is impossible to say whether this CORO disc is a Haydn issue containing sacred music by Mozart or a Mozart issue containing a symphony by Haydn. The Haydn is certainly taken out of its usual context here – but, equally certainly, it does not suffer as a result. Placed first on the disc, it serves as a curtain-raiser for the Mozart works even though it is quite clearly self-contained and presented entirely on its own merits. The symphony is followed by the motet – written when Mozart was 16 – and the result is exhilarating as well as surprising: Teresa Wakim sings with both lightness and fervor, presenting the material with just the sort of upbeat enthusiasm that would have been expected in a work of this type in Mozart’s time. And then she and the other soloists in the “Coronation” Mass do an especially fine job with the operatic elements introduced into the sacred work, the Agnus Dei being especially notable in this regard. Young Mozart was clearly adept with the typical sacred-music forms of his time, but his attention seems more focused in this Mass on some of the instrumental material (especially for the strings) than on strictly presenting vocal elements in expected formats. Christophers’ “pairing” approach to Haydn’s symphonies not only shines new light on the symphonies themselves but also invites listeners to compare the non-symphonic material on the discs: the Mass settings by Haydn and Mozart are quite different, each effective in its own way, and each stamped with its composer’s personal ideas and techniques despite the use of the identical text for both. This is a fascinating way to present music that tends to be offered, more traditionally, in more-obvious combinations – sacred works with other sacred works, symphonies from a grouping with others from the same group, and so on.

     Much more common than the Christophers approach, but also making interesting juxtapositions possible, is the release of musical collections simply labeled as volumes of a series. This makes it possible to include pretty much anything that fits the series in pretty much any sequence – not always for reasons that are clear to listeners, although they may be well-considered in devising the set of “volumes.” The second Chandos release of orchestral music by Eric Coates (1886-1957), as performed by the BBC Philharmonic under John Wilson, is a good case in point. There is no clear reason for the specific order in which the material on this disc appears. Certainly chronology is not a factor: London Bridge dates to 1934, The Selfish Giant to 1925, Wood Nymphs to 1917, The Enchanted Garden to 1938, For Your Delight to 1937, Summer Days to 1919, Lazy Night to 1931, and Calling All Workers to 1940. Interestingly, the enclosed booklet does discuss the works chronologically, making it even harder to figure out why this particular arrangement of pieces was chosen. The lengths of the works do not seem to be the reason, nor is there any particular attempt to, say, follow more-serious material with the less-serious; indeed, there is nothing particularly somber in any of this Coates music, even though some of it – notably the wartime Calling All Workers march – springs from serious concerns. There are times when a solo-instrument or chamber-music disc appears simply to represent a personalized recital by the performer or performers, but there is no indication that this is the case here. So what listeners get is nothing more (and nothing less!) that a series of mostly bright, mostly bouncy, tuneful and thoroughly well-crafted pieces of the type usually described as “light classics,” all played with great style by the orchestra and conducted by Wilson with unflagging enthusiasm. Come to think of it, that results in a very worthwhile listening experience indeed – even if the motivation for presenting it in exactly this way remains obscure.

     Yet for many multi-release CD sequences, the arrangement of material is obvious, and the traditional form of presentation is quite clearly the best available. That is so when it comes to Beethoven’s string quartets, which fall so neatly into early, middle and late groupings that any ensemble planning to offer the full set will inevitably present the early material, then the “middle” quartets, and finally the late works. That is certainly the direction in which a new two-CD Cedille release featuring the Dover Quartet is going. This is the first of a planned three-volume presentation – and the only volume of the cycle released during the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth (the performances themselves date to 2018 and 2019). Sometimes traditional sequences really are the best way to go: this is a first-rate offering of the six quartets from Op. 18 and is worthy of comparison with the best versions available from other fine ensembles – and it is hard to imagine a better sequence than the one so neatly flowing from just following these quartets’ designations as Op. 18, Nos. 1-6 (although, speaking of sequencing, the numbering does not reflect the order of composition: No. 3 is the earliest and No. 5 was written before No. 4). The Dover Quartet’s handling of these pieces places the works firmly in the line of Mozart’s quartets, to which they are in many ways quite closely tied. The melodic lines are kept very clear in these performances, and the quartets’ ensemble sections are played with precision and the care that comes with careful rehearsal – yet the quartets do not sound rehearsed, or at least not over-rehearsed, coming across with a sense of spontaneity and (where appropriate) joie de vivre that is quite winning. These quartets contain barely any hints of where Beethoven would go in the later ones, and to the Dover Quartet’s credit, the players do not look overly hard for any forward-looking material or overemphasize any that they find. These are, foundationally, very Mozartean (sometimes Haydnesque) performances of the early Beethoven quartets – and that it all to the good, since this approach does not weigh the music down with a level of portentousness that it simply does not have. Even No. 4, the only minor-key work in the set, plumbs no significant emotional depths, its home key of C minor scarcely suggesting the intensity that Beethoven would bring to that key in later works; and No. 2, which is filled with polite conversation among the instruments, especially benefits from the Dover Quartet’s approach. Throughout the six-quartet set, the performers communicate musically in seemingly effortless style, allowing the music – much of it far more plainspoken than later Beethoven would be – to emerge in its own time (the tempos are uniformly well-chosen) and to build communicative edifices that, if not imposing, are very pleasantly shaped and worth returning to again and again. Indeed, a salient characteristic of these performances is that they are pleasantly engaging when first heard, yet full enough of depth and style to be worthy of repeated listenings. Beethoven’s middle and late quartets require a presentation style that is very different from that of these early ones, but that is tied to and quite obviously builds from what the Op. 18 quartets possess. It will be very interesting indeed to hear how this conventionally sequenced quartet series progresses – in particular, whether the Dover Quartet will successfully highlight what is new and different in Beethoven’s later quartets while still paying attention to the ways in which they recall the approaches and influences of these first six.

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