Haydn and Mozart by Handel and Haydn

Review by: David Hurwitz

Haydn Christ

Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 9

In his booklet note for this release. Harry Christophers spouts the usual nonsense about “stripping away the cobwebs” from this music using period instruments, blah, blah, blah, and frankly I couldn’t be more sick of it. The music has never needed “stripping,” to make is sound “anew,” and to equate “difference” with “newness” is just plain wrong. Are we truly supposed to believe that because concert master Aisslinn Nosky plays on a modern copy of an old violin Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto sounds “anew,” as opposed to say, Arthur Grumiaux under Colin Davis? Please. The only cobwebs that need to be stripped away here are the ones clogging the performers’ brains.

OK, I’ve vented. First consider the symphonies. Aesthetic issues aside, these are generally very fine performances. Symphony No. 26 is famous for Haydn’s quotations of plainchant within its melodic fabric, and for its grim, minor-key tonality. Christophers captures the work’s tension, and impresses especially in the abrupt dynamic outbursts in the creepy minuet-finale. Symphony No. 86, the greatest of the “Paris” Symphonies, also goes swimmingly. Its remarkable slow movement sounds unusually coherent at Christopher’s flowing tempo, although a certain timidity from the horns and trumpets prevents the performance from having the ultimate impact.

Haydn’s “Paris” Symphonies were, as we know, written for a very large orchestra. They are in fact the first “modern” symphonies in size, scope, and ambition, and for that reason they have usually sounded best played by modern orchestras. Even Herbert von Karajan did them superbly, and while Christophers would have benefitted from a few more cellos and basses, the string forces he has on hand (7,7,4,4,2) still manage to convey the bigness of the music. For this he certainly deserves credit.

The Mozart concerto is another story. Sure, the outer movements have plenty of life, and soloist Nosky tackles them with easy virtuosity. Then there’s that heavenly slow movement, and here, in a sustained cantabile, Nosky’s microscopically puny tone and avoidance of a healthy vibrato sink him. The tiny portamentos that come and go also give the impression of unsteadiness of pitch. This is a clear case where cobweb-stripping produces results that aren’t only not “new,” they’re just plain ugly. A pity.

So to summarize: there’s a lot of fine musicianship here, compromised by the usual Historically Informed Performance rhetoric. A frustrating release, then, because it wants to be (and easily could have been) better than its premises allow.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Mozart: Grumiaux/Davis (Decca); Haydn 86: Bernstein (Sony); Harnoncourt (RCA)

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