Harmonia mundi’s introduction to its contributions for the upcoming Haydn year is both lavish and authoritative, both in presentation and performances. Other labels may give you more actual Haydn in their Haydn year offerings, but none will offer a portrait of Haydn that’s so leading edge in performance, intriguing in repertoire and drop-dead gorgeous in sound, all consonant with Harmonia mundi’s legendary commitment to intellectual curiosity and sheer beauty. And for once, I’m glad to say that it’s a Haydn anthology without the Trumpet Concerto.
The excerpts from two of Haydn’s symphonies, one early and one late, show the startling breadth of the label’s achievements. The first movement of No. 6 (“Morning”) is played with sumptuous grace and ease by the Freiburger Barockorchester conducted by Petra Muellejans. The dynamite last movement of No. 92 (“Oxford”) is played with good humor and explosive energy by the same band, this time conducted by Rene Jacobs. The other bits and pieces from quartets, choral works, concertos, piano music and chamber music show the same dazzling variety.
In addition to getting acquainted with the label’s stylistic “take” on Haydn, which is a mix of conventional and historically-informed, the excerpts place Haydn very firmly in the firmament he occupies equally with the more physically sensual Mozart and the more physically spiritual Beethoven. Jacobs’ performances in particular are so magnificently a synthesis of the three styles that, in addition to recording more symphonic Haydn and Mozart, his performances of symphonic Beethoven could be stunning.
The sound in the two symphonies, the complete D Major Piano Concerto (with Andreas Staier) The Seasons, the “Scena di Berenice,” and in a quietly spectacular recording of one of the Piano Trios played by Patrick Cohen, Erich Hoebarth and Christophe Coin, are of audiophile quality. The others are mostly just outstanding and only one switch between tracks creates any qualitative disconnect.
The hard bound packaging is also deluxe. Subtitled, “An Introduction to Joseph Haydn’s Life and Work,” the meandering, affectionate and authoritative 73-page essay by Charles Johnston which, in order to make way for and be aligned to a really fabulous selection of illustrations (many in full color) makes following the bilingual text (English and Spanish) an occasional challenge.
– Laurence Vittes