Christopher Morley discovers a mixed bag among the latest classical music releases.
Hyperion has got off to an early start in this year which marks the bicentenary of Haydn’s death by releasing a wonderful four-CD boxed set of the composer’s 12 London symphonies, the last he composed out of an amazing total of 104.
Set against this, his 103 string quartets, the 175 (at least) works he composed for the obscure baryton instrument so beloved of his aristocratic employer, the 24 operas and so much else besides and you get a picture of the industriousness of the man.
The London symphonies come from a time when the composer was in his 60s and making two lengthy, taxing and somewhat perilous journeys across Europe to the English capital to appear at concerts promoted by the impresario, Johann Peter Salomon.
Far from showing any falling-off in productivity and invention, they reveal new avenues of thought, new attitudes to the orchestra, new attitudes to texture and colour and each one offers fascination and enchantment.
These performances from the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana under the multi-talented Howard Shelley (a first-rank pianist when he’s not conducting) fizz with life and affection, alert and pulsating with energy.
There is an appropriate awareness of Haydn’s bass lines, all the strings are lithe and athletic while the wind contributions are positive and well-placed (if slightly too closely highlighted in an otherwise lovely acoustic).
As a sample, try the Symphony No 102 in B-flat major, where bubbling high spirits vie with astringent counterpoint and dry wit. Shelley picks out some telling instrumental detail: the fabulous timpani crescendo beginning from a distance to usher in the first movement’s recapitulation, the menacing muffled trumpets and timpani underpinning the endlessly weaving solo cello in the slow movement (surely an influence on Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, as indeed this entire symphony is on that composer’s Fourth).
Richard Wigmore’s detailed and contextual insert-notes are a joy in themselves, adding to the sheer goodie-bag packaging of this delightful set (Hyperion CDS44371/4).
Amazingly, a composer born within a century of Haydn’s death is still with us, and still busy composing to commission. This is, of course, Elliott Carter, whose career has encompassed so many shifts in musical style and fashion and whose own language has developed with a firm sense of purpose and direction.
Parallels with Beethoven are too obvious to ignore, both composers passing through apprenticeship to in-your-face individuality and arriving at a directness of communication which only requires a sympathetic listening ear.
Carter’s string quartets cover several decades of his long life and a recent group of concerts from the expert young Pacifica Quartet in Urbana, Illinois featured all five of the composer’s works in the medium in celebration of his 100th birthday last year.
Like Beethoven’s five quartets written at the very end of his life, Elliott Carter’s are rigorous and demanding, elliptical, elusive and tangential motivic writing between the instruments contrasting with interludes of frozen lyricism. Like those Beethoven quartets, they bring generous rewards to receptive ears.
A new Naxos release in this enterprising label’s “American Classics” series brings a bargain-price opportunity to get acquainted with Carter’s Quartets Nos 2, 3 and 4 (Nos 1 and 5 have already been released), in these dedicated, committed performances from the Pacifica players (8.559.363).
Finally, we come to ‘gift horse in the mouth’ time, with what should be a mouthwatering “limited edition” of “J.S.Bach: The Sacred Masterworks”, Ten CDs for the price of three, on the respected BIS label (BIS-CD-9020/22). Performances are from the much-admired Bach Collegium Japan under the informed direction of Masaaki Suzuki.
I have enjoyed their work in live concert very much but, on disc, there are details which would become tiresome on repeated hearing: mannered phrasing in choral lines and excessively aspirated consonants.
There is, nevertheless, so much which is “right” in the basic approach to these works, with a tiny chorus matched by an equally tiny orchestral complement and with soloists (including Ex Cathedra and Birmingham University graduate Carolyn Sampson and the remarkable Rachel Nicholls) emerging from their choral colleagues.
But are these really all “Sacred Masterworks”? B-minor Mass, the St Matthew and St John Passions, the Christmas Oratorio undoubtedly are but when is the last time anyone heard the Easter Oratorio and the even more elusive Ascension Oratorio, which are largely compilations from other Bach sources?
What a pity these two squeezed out the exuberant, emotionally direct, communicatively concise Magnificat, a genuine masterwork in its own right.
I’m afraid I’m even grumpy about the packaging, notelet-style with a lift-off lid to the vertical box and separate booklets for the various works.
The notes put as much emphasis on the “production” of these recordings as on the content, though there is some fascinating accompanying documentation.