The Virtual HAYDN – The Complete Works for Solo Keyboard – Tom Beghin plays seven historical keyboards in nine virtual rooms – Naxos Box Set of 3 pure audio Blu-ray discs and 1 1080i hi-def Blu-ray disc, DTS-HD Master Audio or PCM 2.0, NBD0001-04, 18 hours total (region free) *****:
The first entry of Naxos back into hi-def multichannel releases, after their past delving into both SACD and DVD-Audio, is this super-extensive multichannel and hi-def video survey of every solo work of Franz Joseph Haydn, including some of those for which his authorship is doubted. There simply isn’t time nor space to list every single one of the selections here. Although the set features Blu-ray videos, and is also a DualDisc – in that there are both music discs plus a video disc – I have placed it in this section because it’s probably the highest-res album we have ever covered.
It would be wise to watch the three-hour video Blu-ray first, before listening to the over 14 hours of music-only Blu-rays. It has subtitles, by the way, in French, German, Dutch and Japanese. The documentary “Playing the Room” explains the very unusual approach to these recordings. The plan was to record Haydn’s keyboard music on seven instruments appropriate to each work, but also to do it in nine different equally appropriate spaces. For example, some of the intimate little works obviously written for the clavichord would be played in a room of Haydn’s actual house in Eisenstadt, whereas a big keyboard sonata would be performed on a two-manual harpsichord in a large and ornate hall of the Esterhazy Palace where Haydn was the court composer/performer. All seven instruments ranging from a 1760s clavichord to an English grand piano from 1798 – were built especially for the project as copies of the originals, by leading instrument makers of today.
Now comes the unique twist in this project: the performer and music historian, Tom Beghin, didn’t perform in all those locations thruout Europe and Canada. Instead, he worked with producer Martha de Francisco and acoustical architect Wieslaw Woszcyk in applying “virtual acoustics” for the first time in a commercial recording such as this. The team sampled and mapped the acoustics of each of the nine performing environments, using three-point arrays of omni mikes as the main microphones, and other cardioid and omnidirectional mikes to pick up different shades of defined sound in various positions. They then took the recorded digital data back to the labs of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology of the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal. There Tom Beghin performed each of the works on the appropriate keyboard instrument in the middle of a sphere of 24 speakers – some of which you can see in the photo as the rectangular devices with 4 drivers per speaker.
He practiced the pieces within the domed sphere of 24 speakers, but for the actual recordings the speakers were turned off and a perfected mix of the convolution responses was send to headphones worn by Tom, and then mixed in the proper proportions with the pickup of his actual keyboard instrument. The producer explains in the tech notes how the sound of any instrument is a mix of its direct sound (including reverberation in its own case, as they discovered with the small clavichord) and the reflections from the surrounding walls, ceiling and floor. These reflections bounce around continually in the space, creating diffuse sound and reverberation, until they die out. What the Virtual Haydn project did was to isolate completely the separate components of the direct sound of the instruments and the reflected sounds of the environment, and putting them together again, using the virtual acoustics of the various historical spaces.
The video Blu-ray includes three other parts in along with the documentary film by Robert Litz and Jeremy Tusz. There are five selections presented as complete videos with DTS-HD surround. There is a Gallery of still photos of all the instruments and the various historical rooms. The most unusual portion is the “7 x 9 Matrix: Andante for Musical Clock.” It presents the same short Haydn work he was commissioned to compose for a mechanical musical clock of the period, played on each of the seven different keyboard instruments. The viewer can then select one of the keyboards, and with the remote select which of the nine historical room acoustics you want to hear it performed in. Taking 7 times 9 you thus have 63 different possible combinations! There is also a beautifully illustrated 66-page booklet with the set.
BD No. 1 is divided into four programs: Courting Nobility and The Music Lesson make use of the large Leydecker harpsichord and first a music room and then a larger hall at the Eisenstadt castle; Quality Time and Haydn’s Workshop uses pieces performed on a clavichord in Saxon Style, played in two different-sized rooms of Haydn’s own house. BD No. 2 has three programs: Your Most Serene Highness features the "Nicolaus Esterhazy Sonata" played on a French style harpsichord in the ceremonial Room of the Esterhazy Palace, The Score is the “Anno 1776 Sonatas,” played on a 1788 Tafel Klavier in the Chateau Ramezay in Montreal, and Equal to the Finest Masters presents the Auenbrugger Sonatas of 1780, played on an Anton Walter fortepiano in the Esterhazy Music Room. BD No. 3’s three programs are: Musical Letters to a Princess, with the "Marie Esterhazy Sonatas" of 1784 played again on the Tafel Klavier; Viennese Culture, which uses the fortepiano again in the festival hall of the Lobkowitz Palace in Vienna, and finally The London Scene – works written by Haydn in London played on a Clementi piano in the Holywell Music Room at Oxford University. and
This is a sensitive, detailed and well-thought-out presentation – visually, sound-wise and note-wise. One comes away with an appreciation for the many varieties of keyboard instruments and how different they sound from today’s instruments. Also an appreciation for the major sonic effect the particular environment can have on the instrument being recorded. The documentary is a fine survey of the unusual project in hi-res 16:9 video, and the fidelity of all the DTS-HD Master Audio music tracks is of course superb. The great variety and most of all the historically/musically/acoustically accurate presentation of all of Haydn’s keyboard works is 100% more interesting than if Beghin had simply recorded a multi-disc set of all the Haydn keyboard works on the same instrument (or a couple instruments) in exactly the same hall or studio.
– John Sunier