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La Passione
Luigi NONO (1924-1990)
Djamila Boupacha for soprano solo [5:00]
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No.49 in f minor, Hob.I:49 ‘La Passione’ (1768) [27:27]
Gérard GRISEY (1946-1998)
Quatre Chants pour franchir le Seuil for soprano and ensemble (1998) [40:13]
Ludwig Orchestra/Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
rec. 2019, Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, The Netherelands. DDD.
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as lossless (wav) press preview
ALPHA 586 [72:43]

For some time now, Alpha have been issuing a series of recordings of Haydn symphonies, due to run until the tri-centenary in 2032, in which the music is coupled with other works by his contemporaries or later composers. Some of the combinations have been illuminating, others less so. Those recordings are with two period-instrument orchestras, Il Giardino Armonico and Kammerorchester Basel, both directed by Giovanni Antonini. The latest release, on Alpha 682, offers symphonies Nos. 28, 43 (Mercury) and 63 (La Roxelane), with Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances. I enjoyed the lively and persuasive recordings of the symphonies as much as those in the earlier volumes, but didn’t think the Bartók coupling very relevant – Winter 2019-20/2.

The present recording, made with the Ludwig Orchestra, stands outside that series. It’s designed as much for Barbara Hannigan to display her vocal talents in the works which precede and follow the Haydn; there she shines in the dual role of soloist and conductor, in the Haydn solely as conductor. For reasons which I hope to explain, I found the combination of music on this CD even less illuminating than the Haydn-Bartók combinations – bizarre, even.

The Ludwig Orchestra, a group of Dutch musicians which varies in size according to the work being performed, present us with what might best be described as a good old-fashioned modern-instrument recording of the Haydn. Of all the works of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period, this has been thought the one most worthy of the title of La Passione, partly because of its possible association with Holy Week – perhaps for performance on Good Friday itself – and partly because of its emotionally stormy nature. Barbara Hannigan’s description in the booklet of how she views the work may seem over-hyped – “The harpsichord is the dark, lost angel. I asked her to stumble and fumble in the darkness, on a different path than the strings, her wings confined within her shroud, her body half dead and her heart unaware of the love she has left behind” – but that’s the way that these things get written.

It might have been much better to have given us at least the date of the symphony and to have mentioned the links between the symphony and the older type of sinfonia da chiesa, with an opening adagio movement. And how about a translation of the title of the Grisey (four songs for crossing the threshold, if that makes you any the wiser).

Forget the booklet, and the performance is far from over-hyped. In fact, the Haydn who emerges from this recording is an urbane and amenable composer rather than an angry young man. That’s partly the effect of a fairly beefy orchestra, more appropriate in size to the later Paris and London symphonies than to this work composed for the Esterházy orchestra, where only around 12 to 16 players would have been available. The good recording makes the size of the orchestra all too apparent.

As it happens, Volume 1 of the Alpha Haydn 2032 series brings us a period-instrument and period-scale recording of La Passione, the work which gives its name to that album (Alpha 760) and to this. That also includes Haydn’s Symphony No.1 with another of his Sturm und Drang symphonies, No.39, and Glück’s Don Juan, another powerful work from the period. In DL News 2014/13 I described Giovanni Antonini’s performances of these symphonies as just right, though I thought his account of the minuet and trio a shade hard-driven by comparison with another recording directed by Gottfried von der Goltz (Harmonia Mundi HMA1952029, budget-price, DL News 2014/11).

If Antonini and von der Goltz seem a trifle fast in La Passione, Barbara Hannigan and the Ludwig Orchestra really drag out the opening adagio. It certainly fits with her view of the symphony as the middle piece in a triptych of serious works, but I think Haydn would have felt more at ease with Antonini or von der Goltz or, to name a series of Haydn recordings from a modern orchestra directed with a sense of period performance, Ádám Fischer with the Austro-Hungarian Chamber Orchestra (Nimbus NI7072, 2 CDs budget-price, Sturm und Drang Symphonies; see also NI7041/2, Great Haydn Symphonies: Recording of the Month – review).

Antonini brings out all the inherent feeling of that opening adagio at almost exactly twice Hannigan’s tempo and with a much smaller orchestra in which the individual strands can be heard clearly within the overall sound picture.  The other recordings mentioned are also more to the point – and I could name several more which do so.  After the first movement, however, Hannigan moves the music along in a much more spirited manner.

The Haydn, then, is a modified success for me. The rest of the recording, I’m sorry to say, is unlikely to appeal to those who buy the CD for the sake of that central work. If you have heard the Gerard Hoffnung ‘performance’ of the music of Bruno Heinz Jaja, that’s a thinly disguised and very apt parody of the likes of Luigi Nono, whose Djamila Boupacha opens the programme of the new Alpha. I’m sure that the composition arose from true identification with the fate of this young proponent of Algerian independence, but Nono is a no-no for me, the music as angular and, for me, as off-putting as can be.

Nor did I fare much better with the final work by Gerard Grisey, again despite Hannigan’s highly imaginative description of the music. Orchestras often combine more traditional works with music by contemporary composers in concert in order to get new music better known, but choosing a CD is a different matter and buyers surely tend to go for what they expect to like. Probably those who would buy the album for the Nono and Grisey would be no more likely to want the Haydn than I was impressed by the opening and closing music.

Mercifully, the Nono is short, but the Grisey takes up over half of the recording. I tried very hard to come to terms with the longest section, La mort de l’humanité, based on words from The Epic of Gilgamesh. That early epic is a work that I’ve loved since I bought the Penguin Classics translation sixty years ago – there’s now a better edition, based on more recent discoveries. I can truly say that it doesn’t have the same effect on me as Quatre Chants pour franchir le Seuil. I’m not sure which doorstep the music is supposed to get us over, to translate the title. There is some music outside my comfort zone that I expect one day to come to terms with, but I doubt if this is one such – apart, perhaps, from the closing berceuse. It's clearly a favourite work of Barbara Hannigan - she has recorded it with the New York Philharmonic on a download-only recording on their house label (NYP20110107).  In all fairness, I should add that Herbert Culot thought another recording of the Quatre Chants on the Kairos label deeply moving - review - and Anne Ozario thought the work, as performed live by Hannigan in 2008, a masterpiece - review.

If it’s the Haydn that you are looking for, do sample the Nono and Grisey – most online sellers allow that, and subscribers to the likes of Naxos Music Library can do it in more detail. In any case, however, the Haydn symphony is better heard on the Antonini, von der Goltz and Fischer recordings. The latter two come at an attractive price as, also, does Roy Goodman with the Hanover Band (Hyperion Helios CDH55119, Symphonies 48-50, download only, Ł7.99 in lossless sound, with pdf booklet, or Archive Service CD, from see DL Roundup March 2012/2).

Not the top recommendation, then, for the Haydn title piece. The other works fit incongruously with it. I never like to write off a recording completely, but I doubt if I shall be returning to any part of this. The cover shot of someone drowning is all too apt.

Brian Wilson

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