Nikolaus Harnoncourt – The Symphony Collection – Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Chamber Orchestra of Europe/ Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt [TrackList below] – Teldec/Warner Classics 2564 69004-9 – (5 CDs box set), 375 min. total [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
In the very informative booklet that accompanies this remarkably good five-disc set, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (who just turned 80) speaks at length about the misconceptions surrounding his espousal of original instrument performances, which was the singular focus of a goodly portion of his career as a conductor and musician. Harnoncourt began as a cellist with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, working with such notable conductors as Herbert von Karajan and Ferenc Fricsay. In the 1950s, driven by a personal desire to perform music from the Baroque and Classical periods in a more authentic style, Harnoncourt, along with his wife Alice, founded the Vienna-based chamber orchestra Concentus musicus Wien. This hand-selected group of players studied and trained in their chosen repertory for nearly four years before their first recording was released to almost universal acclaim in 1957. Throughout the next two decades, Harnoncourt and his Vienna players blazed a path of scholarly performances on the Telefunken label that pretty much set the standard for original instrument recordings.
In the 1970s, he began to conduct larger more modern symphony orchestras, and began to apply the knowledge he’d gained from nearly a quarter century of historically-informed performances to those more contemporary ensembles. Over the next four decades, he worked with many of the world’s major orchestras; this set focuses on his recordings for Teldec with the Concergebouw, Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. I was particularly excited to get the excellent recordings with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, many of which have been out of print for years – and I just found out that Warner Classics & Jazz is in the process of re-releasing additional boxed sets of many of Harnoncourt’s Teldec recordings – very exciting, indeed!
The performances here cover a wide range of dates scattered throughout the eighties and nineties, and the sound quality is very consistently top-notch, with only the barest trace of tape hiss obvious on the earliest Concertgegouw recordings. Don’t let that small consideration dissuade you from enjoying any of these excellent traversals; the Schubert and Dvorak, in particular, offer near-definitive performances. But for my book, the real meat here is the Chamber Orchestra of Europe performances; there are excellent Symphonies No. 1 and 5 from the highly acclaimed Beethoven cycle, and a particularly good Mendelssohn 4. My personal favorite, and reason enough to get the whole box, is Harnoncourt’s reading of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, taken from the composer’s 1841 score. As the orchestra passes through the contemplative, cello-driven second movement into the fiery third movement, the effect here is unlike any other recorded version of this work I’ve ever heard – it’s nothing short of breathtakingly exhilerating, and Harnoncourt leads the COE at an incredibly brisk tempo that nearly defies belief! Harnoncourt comes full circle with the final performance here, a seriously good live recording of the Bruckner 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic. Despite a few nits here and there, the overall sound quality is superb, and especially good for Red Book CD, with excellent orchestral sound.
I can’t recommend this set highly enough, and with the ongoing re-release of additional Harnoncourt titles throughout the near future, it makes for an especially exciting new year.
TrackList: Disc 1: Haydn Symphonies Nos. 94 “Surprise” and 104 “London”, Beethoven Symphony No. 1; Disc 2: Mozart Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter”, Beethoven Symphony No. 5; Disc 3: Schubert Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished”, Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4 “Italian”, Schumann Symphony No. 4; Disc 4: Brahms Symphony No. 3, Dvorak Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”; Disc 5: Bruckner Symphony No. 7.
— Tom Gibbs