Saturday, September 11, 2004

Knurre, Schnurre, Knurre

The conductor Rene Jacobs keeps on providing the best evidence that classical recording isn't dead. Already this year he's given us a recording of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro that ranks as the best Figaro ever on period instruments, and one of the best overall. And his new recording of Haydn's oratorio The Seasons is in the same class. Compared with other period-instrument conductors like John Eliot Gardiner (whose recording of The Seasons is also very fine, though I think the new one would be my first choice), Jacobs is more willing to engage in "Romantic" devices like slowing down for emphasis; we've come a long way from the time when period performances were stiff and metronomic. And Jacobs makes the most of Haydn's representational effects; in the third-act hunting chorus, he's not afraid, for example, to get a rough, gruff sound from the brass to suggest (as Haydn intended) the hounds barking as they pursue the fox. The soloists and chorus are all fine, and it's nice that the recording assembled an all-German cast and chorus -- it's not often nowadays that you hear a performance or recording where everybody is singing in his or her own language.

What's so wonderful about Haydn's late oratorios -- The Creation and The Seasons -- is that they are perfect combinations of sophistication and simplicity. So in The Seasons we have the thematic, harmonic and developmental sophistication of a composer who more or less invented the rules of the so-called Classical style, alternating and/or combining with Haydn's celebration of the fun things music can do: hummable tunes representation of natural phenomena and physical actions, folk dances. (Haydn even pays a little tribute to his own hard-won fame and popularity: when the text describes a farmer whistling a tune as he works, the orchestra plays the famous tune from the second movement of Haydn's 94th symphony.)

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