I can give a hearty two thumbs up -- or, as a British classical music reviewer would put it, a three-star rating -- to Nikolaus Harnoncourt's new recording of Haydn's Paris Symphonies (symphonies # 82-87). Harnoncourt is pretty much the granddaddy of the period-instrument movement. When he was a cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in the '50s, he started to wonder why so much baroque music sounded so boring now, when it was considered so exciting in its time. So he formed the Concentus Musikus Wien, a period instrument group, for the express purpose of playing music on instruments of the period, with techniques influenced by baroque techniques. All of this was intended not to make the music sound like a museum piece, but to make it sound as fresh and interesting as it did in its own time. And Harnoncourt has always stuck to the aim of making music sound fresh and new; he comes to everything with new and unusual ideas about how it should sound. Sometimes it doesn't work and sounds ridiculous; but with this new Haydn set, it works beautifully.
Harnoncourt's performances of these great symphonies are the kind of Haydn performances I prefer: not very genial or gentle, but full of violent contrasts and an emphasis on the unusual sounds Haydn creates with his orchestration. The first movement of symphony no. 83 is a case in point: Haydn starts the movement with a violent Sturm Und Drang theme in G minor, which suddenly segues into a lighthearted, comic second subject with an oboe solo that sounds like a chicken clucking (the symphony was nicknamed "La Poule," or "The Hen"). Harnoncourt brings all that out perfectly: whereas most conductors try to play down the violence of the first subject to give the movement a more consistent tone, Harnoncourt plays up the contrasts, so that the first subject sounds truly ferocious and the "clucking" theme sounds hilarious.
The best symphony of this group is probably symphony no. 86, a half-hour crash course in everything that makes Haydn the greatest of all symphonists. The first movement features two themes built out of little three-note motifs, which are then developed, revised, re-orchestrated, and played in counterpoint, as if Haydn is trying to see how many musically interesting ideas he can create from the simplest, barest musical motifs. The slow movement is a free-form "capriccio" that takes another simple motif, develops it into a theme, and subjects that theme to all kinds of new and unusual harmonies and modulatory games. The third movement, as usual with Haydn, contrasts two different types of dance music: a stately minuet (which contains several rhythmic and developmental tricks that make it almost impossible to dance to; these are movements about dancing, not actual dances) followed by a "country" dance led by a woodwind band. And the exuberant finale features still more surprises: the hiccuping phrases and bassoon gurgles in the second subject, the sudden pauses during the development section, the continued games with harmony and dynamics. Haydn lived to surprise his audience, and I can think of no better way to praise Harnoncourt's performances by saying that they make Haydn sound continually surprising.
For newcomers to Haydn, the Paris symphonies are perhaps the best place to start; when I heard Leonard Bernstein's classic set of these symphonies, I was hooked from the boisterous beginning of symphony no. 82. Harnoncourt's set is as good as Bernstein's in its own way, and features better sound (Bernstein's engineers made everything too string-heavy, making it hard to hear the brass and drums, which are very important in symphonies 82 and 86). One thing that may take some getting used to is that he takes every single repeat, with the result that these symphonies take over a half-hour each; but such good music is worth repeating a few times.
Harnoncourt's next recording will be of Verdi's Requiem, with the Vienna Philharmonic and soloists Eva Mei, Bernarda Fink, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo and (Canadian alert!) Michael Schade. Whether this will be one of Harnoncourt's brilliant performances, or one of his weird ones, I don't know, and the lineup of singers sounds a bit lightweight, but I'll definitely be on the lookout for it. Other Harnoncourt recording projects in the next year or two reportedly include a disc of Offenbach operetta excerpts and the 7235235th recording of Handel's Messiah.