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on 1 February 2012
This boxset is one of the Concentus musicus Vienna/Harnoncourt package best late recordings. It is the acoustics of the country church of Stainz in Austria what makes all the difference, doing wonders to the tricky 'natural' brass of the baroque orchestra, as well as to the choir.
Many recordings of the famous baroque consort made in Vienna don't benefit from such an extraordinary environment for the sound engineers; it comes to my mind Mozart's Requiem recorded in the Musikverein, despite earning them an award, showcased the difficulties faced by period brass performing in not-exceedingly-good acoustics.
The Vienna Zoegernitz casino was another familiar recording venue that presented similar challenges; here the Sony production team failed also with the OAE doing Schubert's masses;
frankly it should have dawned on the Teldec producers that it made a lot of sense going on small pilgrimages to Stainz for recording purposes, unless the vicar objected!(surely he wouldn't at the sight of Warner's chequebook).
Acoustics apart, there's only a minor downside to this recording, the 'domination' of the orchestral sound by the choir; unbalance that may be favoured by some, these difficulties faced by period orchestras to rise above the choir are also commonplace. In religious music, where highlighting the text is paramount, this may be even intended by the producers. However, the EMI production team working with N. Marriner on the same masses by Haydn chose a more balanced approach, and these recordings made much earlier still stand the test of time today.
All in all, both attempts plus some of the Decca recordings of these works truly deserve a place in any collector's larder.
The Warner price increases the appeal of this boxset even more.
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on 18 July 2012
Haydn: 4 Masses : Stabat Mater etc.: Arnold Schoenberg Choir Concentus Musicus Wein/ Harnoncourt

F J Haydn: Stabat Mater; Seven Last Words (Hob. XX:2); Missa in tempore belli*; Missa in angustiis; Schöpfungsmesse*; Harmoniemesse;
Te Deum (Hob.XXIIIc:1); Te Deum (Hob.XXIIIc:2); Salve Regina (Hob.XXIIIb:2); Canata "Qual dubbio ormai" (Hob.XXIVa:4)

Franz Schubert: Magnificat, D486*; Intende voci D963*

*Recording of live performance.

Arnold Schoenberg Choir Concentus Musicus Wein/ Harnoncourt

WARNER CLASSICS 2564 69939-8
[6 CDs: 57:44 + 51:19 + 65:55 + 58:37 + 62:41 + 63:14 - recordings made between 1990 and 1999]

Note: Two Masses from the six late Masses of Haydn are omitted, namely: The Heiligmesse and the Theresienmesse.

I should state at the outset a certain unease I have with the recording quality on some of the discs. In many instances (to my ears) it is as if there is a material curtain between the performers and the microphones. Leaving aside problems in recording techniques themselves (from microphone to finished product), most of us are aware of the difficulties in achieving acoustical balance in performance. One has to consider the characteristics of the auditorium, the disposition of players and so on; and what the conductor or chorus master receives at the rostrum will differ from the sound the audience hears in various parts of the auditorium.

I give this preamble so as not to appear overharsh in my criticism of the interpretations in some of the performances. However, none of what has been said should have influenced too greatly the conductor's approach to tempi and rubato.

Te Deum (Hob.XXIIIc:1) pre-1765, F J Haydn: Stabat Mater 1767, Salve Regina 1771, Canata "Qual dubbio ormai" 1774 are the early works from Haydn represented in the package.

The Te Deum in C major (Hob.XXIIIc:1) is another of the neglected works being overshadowed by its much later brother (1799/1800) in the same key.
The earlier work is more lightly scored but does include trumpets and timpani which as in the earlier C major symphonies, add greatly to the orchestral colour. I have little to quibble about from Harnoncourt's performance of the earlier work. He takes a broad view of the later Te Deum that is for me not at all convincing. Compared to recordings by Weil, Pinnock and others he is pedestrian - one might say stodgy; and I do not much care for his "stabbing" accents, particularly marked in the final section of the work.

The composer was justly proud of his Stabat Mater: "Wait till you hear my S.M." Indeed many did get to hear the work which became very popular in a number of countries well outside Austria.

In contrast to the late masses there are few recordings of this work so that one has little with which to compare Harnoncourt's interpretation. As befits the nature of the work there is a predominance of slow music which suits Harnoncourt's approach. Although close to the Baroque in style and epoch, Haydn shows his adventurous hand to a prophetic degree in this music.

There are a number of versions for the Seven Last Words including arrangements for keyboard and string quartet. The original orchestral form of the work ( Hob. XX:1) was composed in 1785. The genesis for Haydn's much later version for voices is rather complex and need not concern us here. This so-called "oratorio" version was completed by 1899. The version we now know as Hob. XX:2 also contains an added section scored for wind instruments. This second Introduzione appears halfway through the work, thereby providing a useful contrast at this juncture. (It also makes one regret that Haydn had not written more single pieces for this combination of instruments.)

The only other available recording of Hob. XX:2 to my knowledge is Nicol Matt's with the Nordic Chamber Choir and soloists on Brilliant Classics.

An important consideration for any performance of this work in its orchestral and choral versions is the choice of venue. An outstanding recording of Hob. XX:1 was made at the Festival de l'Abbaye d'Ambronay in 1990 under the directorship of Jordi Savall. The acoustics of the building suited this work in a manner that is not matched in either Harnoncourt's or Matt's recordings.

Following on from the purely orchestral Introduzione (maestoso ed adagio) there are seven sections all in slow tempo marked variously: adagio, grave, largo and lento. The work finishes with the Il Terremento (earthquake), a presto marked triple fortissimo in places, with timpani appearing for the only time in the entire work.

Harnoncourt's choice of tempi is invariably slower when compared to Matt (though not so compared to Savall). Interesting exceptions are to be found in movements 5(largo), preceding the second Introduzione, and 9(largo). Harnoncourt appears to feel the need for some acceleration before the final, short presto whereas it could be argued that a slow tempo before this final burst of anger might be more effective. (Matt appears to think this, and Savall decidedly so.)

Haydn ceased writing symphonies in 1796 with the completion of No 104, the so-called London. He then devoted the remainder of his working life to chamber music and a series of choral masterpieces including The Creation, The Seasons and six Masses produced annually to celebrate the name day of Princess Maria Hermenegild.

The chronology of the six late masses of Joseph Haydn (one must not overlook the composer's younger brother's contribution to the genre) is as follows: Heiligmesse, Paukenmeses, Nelson, Theresienmesse, Schöpfungsmesse and Harmoniemesse. (Some authorities argue over the sequence of the first two but this writer would go for the sequence given here.) The four represented in these recordings may be considered to be the finest of them all, although the omission of any from a collection of the Masses is to be regretted.

[It should be noted that there is only one collection covering recordings of all the Haydn Masses and that is the Chandos/Hickox, now available as an eight-disc box set. Here you will find the pivot to an appreciation of the late Haydn "symphonic" masses with a fine performance of the Mariazell Mass of 1782.]

This late flowering of choral music was in a sense fortuitous since in relative terms Haydn's output in the medium had been small. It is interesting that the one work that links these late masses to the earlier works is to be found in the Mariazell Mass, an undeservedly neglected work. (Only two recordings are available to my knowledge.)

Harnoncourt is by now an acknowledged Haydn interpreter of stature. It came as a great disappointment, therefore, when I came to the Missa in tempore belli to find a less than convincing approach to this monumental work. When compared to recordings on period instruments by Eliot Gardiner, Hickox, and particularly Bruno Weil, I feel disinclined ever to play the Harnoncourt again!

The adagio introduction starts well enough though his timpanist is a little over the top for me at bar five. The problems really begin with the ensuing Kyrie where the slow tempo gives notice of problems to come in terms of articulation and balance. The approach is altogether too ponderous; it's as if Harnoncourt wishes to dissect the music and in so doing disembody it. This is how it sounds to me almost throughout the performance - if anybody could enlighten me as to any merit in this approach I should be grateful to hear from them. (There may be some technical problems with the recording that at times dips in and out of focus.)

The Benedictus again lacks cohesion for me. I want more from a Osanna than I get here. Perhaps one of the final tests has to come with the handling of the famous Agnus Dei, particularly where it leads us into the Dona. Harnomcourt's "drummer" (in contrast to his earlier display) would have left Haydn less than satisfied, I feel. As to the Dona itself, here we are back to the problems of the Kyrie, only in this case the matter is accentuated by a timid rendition of Haydn's dramatic plea.

I was similarly disappointed, though slightly less so, with Harnoncourt's Nelson Mass for much the same reasons that I have outlined for the Missa in tempore belli. With this work we have the added complication of editions or versions. It is not at all clear from the booklet accompanying the CDs exactly what Harnoncourt has used for this performance. The notes are quite misleading in one sense by giving the impression that Haydn's original score contained full "woodwind".
It is well established that this Mass was subjected to a number of alterations both in the voice parts and the orchestration. (I would direct the reader to H.C.Robbins Landon Vol. IV page 428 et seq. for a fuller explanation.)

When Haydn composed this work in the summer of 1798 his orchestra had been depleted of woodwind. The composer, as always, turned necessity into a virtue by in many instances giving to the organ parts he would have assigned to the woodwind. The overall scoring lends the Mass a pungency that sounds convincing from the very first bar.

We therefore have to consider how any later re-orchestration might influence the Mass. The notes accompanying the set give little indication as to the scoring used by Harnoncourt. All we are told is: "When the mass was published by Breitkopf & Hartel in 1802, Haydn gave permission for the Leipzig firm to reintroduce the missing woodwind parts by instrumenting the organ part". This is in contrast to Denis McCaldin's Haydn Society Chorus recording of the Mass where we are told by our Director that he made a new edition based on the Fuchs source, using the full instrumentation of flute, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani and strings.

Interesting as these later scorings are, it is questionable whether any subsequent tinkering with the orchestral parts achieves any advantage since in Haydn's brain the overall form of the work evolved out of the circumstances at the time. [David Wyn Jones in the Oxford Composer Companions:Haydn, page 249, makes an interesting observation: "One unfortunate consequence of the prevalence of the nickname and associated stories is that many conductors have sought a Beethovenian heroism in the work, exaggerated by large forces and slow tempi, that is wholly at odds with Haydn's conception.] One would not level all this at Harnoncourt's approach but some of it sticks.

The Nelson Mass is the only one of the six in a minor key and which starts with a fast movement. (Interestingly, the only minor key symphony from the London set is also without a slow introduction.) True, the Kyrie is marked Allegro moderato, but Harnoncourt sets such a slow pace that for me the music lacks both bite and purpose.

Having got off to a poor start I can't say there is much in what follows that would have me place this recording in my choice of listening. Compared to Hickox, Pinnock and Weil (all of whom use the earlier scoring), Harnoncourt is quite idiosyncratic and unconvincing; and if I had to go for a full woodwind version I should take Denis McCaldin's recording every time.

Harnoncourt is more convincing in his approach to the two masses which were to be the final works of substance from Haydn.

The Schöpfungsmesse comes off best of the four Masses in my opinion. The scoring in this work is identical to that of the Harmoniemesse with the exception of a single flute, and here again Haydn calls upon the organ to good effect. There are moments of fine sound in this recording, notably in the Sanctus and the splendid sonata form Benedictus, where a good sense of continuous forward motion is essential.

In the Harmoniemesse the poco adagio Kyrie, as might now be anticipated, better suits Harnocourt's approach to the Masses; one has only to fear that he might come to a grinding halt somewhere in this long and affective movement. Compositionally this movement is unique. With the short motif first occurring at bars 4 and 5, one has the sense that Haydn is gathering himself up for a final effort in this his last large-scale work.

The Gloria, in contrast, is marked vivace assai. Again I am not totally at ease with Harnoncourt here. Perhaps I have echoes of the performance by Kuijken which sets a standard in this work that is difficult to excel. The Gratias (allegretto) does indeed recover some ground but (and I apologise for these "buts") there is something amiss with the sound balance that may have to do with recording techniques. (This occurs from time to time throughout these recordings which would seem to support the theory.) The Credo (vivace) is possibly the most successful movement in the entire work as regards interpretation.

With the Sanctus we are back to the problem of clarity. Initially it is difficult to hear the word Sanctus at all. In my score the opening has piano with the voices marked tutti accompanied by full strings and Organ only - this should surely result in a clear statement of the word?

Schubert is represented by both an early and a late work. Four of Schubert's six masses were very much moulded on Haydn. We know that Schubert was a devotee of Haydn and that he was well acquainted with a range of the master's work.

The Magnificat D486 demonstrates the precocious talent of the young composer in his handling of the human voice. The Intende voci D963, along with the Tatum ergo D 962 (not included here), are from October 1828 and amount to some of Schubert's last utterances.

John C Vetterlein

April 18 2008
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