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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Serenade in B flat major, K.361, Gran Partita [45:33] Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Notturno No. 8 in G major, Hob. II:27 [14:58]
Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble/Trevor Pinnock
rec. St George’s, Bristol, UK, 16-18 April 2015
DDD+DSD, reviewed in surround LINN RECORDS CKD516 SACD [60:31]
The other title given to Mozart’s ‘Gran Partita’ is Serenade No. 10 for 13 Wind Instruments. This may challenge the numerically pedantic, since many recorded performances do not conform. Looking tonally downwards, the thirteenth instrument, the contra-bassoon, is often replaced with a double bass. Some performances have indeed employed both instruments – Otto Klemperer’s, to name one. For those, however, who prefer all blow and no scrape, the RAM Soloists Ensemble (RAMSE) recording should at least keep them happy on that count.
Another discretionary selection is a conductor. Again, many variations exist – established ensembles with or without conductor, and ensembles assembled for the occasion which may or may not be under the baton. What one can reasonably expect with a conductor in charge, though, is greater attention to, and oversight of, shaping, phrasing and rhythmic pointing.
It is on this last point that I found the RAMSE recording of the ‘Gran Partita’ under Trevor Pinnock quite surprising. Had I not known its details in advance, I would have guessed the group were performing without external direction. While charming, confident and entertaining, their playing at times has the feeling of an adrenaline rush that thins sonority, blurs detail and fails to let key moments register properly. It doesn’t grab one’s attention as do, say, the Netherlands Wind Ensemble under Edo De Waart or the above-mentioned Otto Klemperer performance with an augmented London Wind Quintet. The NWE, with double bass in the thirteenth spot, produce a gloriously full tone that makes the RAMSE sound rather timid. That, however, may not be totally fair, as recording acoustics can significantly influence such impressions.
The second work, Haydn’s Notturno No. 8, is the ‘London’ version. Composed for Ferdinand IV of Naples, the original ensemble included two lire organizzate, a hybrid instrument combining the features of the hurdy-gurdy and the organ. Unable to source these instruments when he came to London in 1791-2, and faced also with larger performing spaces than the work was composed for, Haydn re-scored it for conventional string and wind instruments. It’s in that form that we hear it played by the RAMSE, and as such may be one of the very few recordings, if not the only current recording, of this version. It’s in three conventional movements, fast-slow-fast, and is delivered with aplomb by Pinnock and his group, this time comprising six strings, flute, oboe and two horns. This is minor but mature and engaging Haydn, exploring many moods and capped off with a spirited ‘hunting’ finale.
The recording venue of St George’s, Bristol, shows a lively but not unpleasant acoustic. For me the recording was a little too awash in ambience, the ensembles set marginally too far back. The surround-sound picture was initially too strong in the rear channels, causing the instruments to swim around my listening room. Adjusting the front-to-back balance ameliorated this, but as a general observation I have to say I’m dismayed by the inconsistency of surround-sound recordings from the various companies producing them. I have my system set up to be amplitude and phase coherent at the prime listening position, but I’m forever having to jump up and make adjustments for each new source. I can understand why many listeners, as I see reported, have given up on surround-sound and gone back to stereo.
Linn Records’ intention in releasing this disc, I presume, was to put a new version of the Mozart ‘Gran Partita’ at the top of the market. Fine as the RAMSE performance is, the competition is fierce, right down through the mid- and budget-price ranges. I would not choose it over the other two recordings I’ve mentioned. The real value of the disc, however, may be in the sum of its parts, with the rare Hadyn makeweight possibly tipping the balance for many.