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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809)
Symphony #92 in g, "Oxford" (1784) [25.32]
Ariana a Naxos (1789) [22.21]
Scena di Berenice (1803) [14.47]
Cecilia Bartoli, soprano
Concentus Musicus Wien Orchestra, Nicolaus Harnoncourt, conductor
Recorded at the Styriarte Festival in Graz, Austria, 14 July 2001.
LPCM Stereo Dolby Digital 5.1 DTS digital 5.1 Video direction by Brian Large
PAL 16:9 anamorphic No region code Format DVD-9
Special features: Styriarte: ‘Portrait of a Festival’ [6.36] ‘In rehearsal’ [14.27]
Subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish. Notes in English, German, and French
BBC Opus Arte DVD OA 0821 D [83.00]

Recordings of Haydn’s vocal music are still rare, although we’re better off now than we were some years ago when these works were all but never performed or recorded. This recording by the finest of artists should serve to increase interest in this aspect of Haydn’s oeuvre.

It used to be required of an opera singer that he or she raise welts in the far back row under the balcony where the music critics sat in those gigantic concert halls. Naturally such power required a large platform from which to launch it. In the mid 20th century recordings brought to prominence another kind of voice, one that was supple and dramatic, capable of not just one or two good notes but of various whole good ranges of expression. Such voices were often not large, and often disappointing when heard live in large halls. Now, an additional requirement has been added — not just how they sound and how they act, but how do they look with the camera in their face? If Schwarzkopf was one of the first to pass this test magnificently, Bartoli is every bit as good. Some other singers — Ewing and Malfitano, for instance — don’t, whatever their abilities otherwise.

Bartoli sings beautifully demonstrating her agile high coloratura and rich low range, perhaps overdoing the dramatics just a little. Our DVD remotes have many buttons, but one that is not there that is needed is a ‘get back’ button. Both Ariana and Berenice are angry women, and with Bartoli’s considerable ability at operatic histrionics — well, it’s wonderful if you’re sitting in the tenth row. But with her anguished face less than a meter from you, you keep thinking, ‘God, I’m glad she’s not mad at ME!’ At times it would have been nice to be able to shrink the picture to about 5 centimeters wide. But the live audience was obviously overwhelmed and gave her a resounding, cheering, ovation. This being unfamiliar music we are probably not ever going to hear it any better than this.

And as we wander around through the orchestra while they’re playing by means of the miracle of miniature robot cameras, odd thoughts run through my mind: ‘The first bassoonist — I wonder what her hair color is really. I’m glad not to meet that burly percussionist in a dark alley, he’s having entirely too much fun pounding on those drums. That’s not really Charles Bronson playing first cello ...? I don’t notice a wedding ring; who would I write to to try to get a date with that first chair player?’ One might say if one’s mind is wandering that much maybe the performance is not good, but Haydn was very bourgeois and genial in his aesthetic. Perhaps such thoughts are not out of place during a Haydn Symphony. But does all this intimacy really enhance our musical experience? The members of the orchestra are people working for a living; they make funny faces, drip sweat, and scratch their noses. Are they entitled to a little more privacy, a little more dignity? Would they play a little better if I wasn’t looking them right in the ear?

Of the Symphony #92 this is a fully sculptured performance attained after many rehearsals. In keeping with recent classical period scholarship the high brass are more prominent that one might be used to. Everything is perfect during the first two movements and I’m thinking this is the best I’ve ever heard it played; but, on the third movement, the ghost of Beethoven casts his shadow and all lightness and grace disappear. Not a phrase goes by that has not been carefully worked out. The music becomes heavy and awkward, the dramatics forced.

The ‘special feature’ interview video shows some interesting things. In the Mozart video filmed at the same time Bartoli seemed to be completely Anglophone, but in this conversation she speaks English throughout with an Italian accent. Harnoncourt speaks to her in English, switching instantly to German for the orchestra, and then Italian when giving everybody their cues in the cantata text. There is an interesting demonstration of the three remote control cameras located within the orchestra and controlled from the control room by joystick.

A video of the Mozart concert arias and Symphony #38 (released Winter 2003) was taped at the same time, and we have a generous preview of that.

I could not get my older DVD player out of 4:3 mode, but my brand new player switched easily to 16:9 mode.

Paul Shoemaker



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