The newest recording technology, the compact disc, is enlisted effectively in the support of very old sounds in several recent recordings by Christopher Hogwood and his Academy of Ancient Music, which made its Washington debut last night at the Kennedy Center.
One of the best recordings I have heard in the CD medium (Oiseau-Lyre 414-330-2) bears the promising nicknames of "Surprise" and "Miracle" (Haydn's symphonies Nos. 94 and 96). Hogwood and the academy provide an abundance of musical surprises and miracles: phrasing of the utmost finesse and expressive resource, delicate balances of sound that revel in the special textures of the classical orchestra as it must have sounded when it was new, and playing of the highest technical quality both in ensemble and in the numerous, piquant solo obligatos.
These performances give an opportunity to display digital recording technology at its finest -- not in the kind of window-shattering climaxes one finds in the "1812" Overture, but in music of moderate dynamic range and delicate, sophisticated texture. The only reasonable complaint is that a third symphony could have been included without straining the spacious time span of a compact disc.
On Oiseau-Lyre compact disc 414-338-2, Hogwood and his band (the term used in the 18th century) perform the first two symphonies of Beethoven, beginning what will become a complete cycle. By the time he gets up to the Ninth Symphony, some musical tastes may want a more thunderous tone and a more brilliant kind of playing than early instruments can accommodate.
But this recording explores the first two symphonies for what they are: music of the 18th century, firmly established and superbly functioning in the classical style though it also strains at its limits. Hogwood's interpretation deftly explores the music's 18th-century dimensions -- notably the familiar affinity to Mozart and Haydn.
There may even be some traces of residual baroque flavor in the "Adagio molto" introductions to both symphonies -- remote, collateral descendants of the expansive, double-dotted overtures to Bach's Suites for Orchestra and similar works. But Hogwood does not overemphasize this dimension. This is a beautiful record, in which familiar music acquires a tinge of unfamiliarity while becoming truer to itself.
The fact that Hogwood and the academy use authentic instruments, played in the ancient style, emerges with sharp impact in Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A (K. 622) and his Oboe Concerto in C (K. 314), with Anthony Pay as clarinet soloist and Michel Piguet on oboe (Oiseau-Lyre compact disc 414-339-2). The Clarinet Concerto was originally composed for a basset clarinet with several notes below the lowest available on a standard clarinet. But the manuscript is lost, and it was published in a transcription for standard clarinet.
This recording presents a reconstructed basset clarinet concerto played on a reconstructed basset clarinet; the effect is unique and convincing. In the companion piece, Piguet performs sensitively the first recording of the work using an authentic 18th-century oboe. The distinctive flavor of the old instruments differs from their modern counterparts sometimes subtly, sometimes strikingly. In either case, the digital recording presents the sound with refreshing clarity and cleanliness.