"Des Knaben Wunderhorn" ("Youth's Magic Horn") is a three-volume collection of German folk poetry, originally published between 1806 and 1808, that remained popular throughout the 19th century. Today, it is familiar to most music lovers only because Gustav Mahler loved it and used texts from it in several symphonies and song cycles. But a collection of the works of those who used its texts would include nearly all the notable German song composers of the 19th century, except Beethoven and Schubert.
Such a collection has been assembled by baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist Geoffrey Parsons on a new CD (Teldec 244923-2, with texts and translations) that is a model of imaginative programming and beautiful singing. By far the best-known item in the collection is the Brahms "Lullaby," which is probably the most familiar text in all of "Des Knaben Wunderhorn," but there are 17 other songs on the disc, by composers whose lives spanned more than a century and a half, from Carl Maria von Weber (born in 1786) to Arnold Schoenberg (died in 1951). Also in the collection are Mendelssohn, Schumann, Karl Loewe, Richard Strauss and Alexander von Zemlinsky, as well as Mahler. You would expect a bewildering variety of styles in such a group, and there is some diversity, but the simple texts influenced the composers to produce a highly compatible group of songs. This collection is charming and historically enlightening.
William Walton's "Facade," set to 21 poems by Edith Sitwell and dating from the 1920s, might be considered the original rap music. The texts, written for rhythm, pace and accent more than intelligibility, are recited, not sung, with a vivid, playful, pop-style instrumental background. The music usually makes more sense than the words, which are full of odd fantasies reflecting the prejudices and lifestyle of the British gentry in that bygone era. There is an extraordinary new performance (ASV CD DCA 679), with Jane Glover conducting the London Mozart Players while Prunella Scales and Timothy West recite the texts with uncommon clarity and agility. They fill out the record by reciting 15 more Sitwell poems without music. Haydn
The London Mozart Players, despite their name, no longer specialize in 18th-century music. But their bright, alert performance of Haydn's Symphonies 83, 84 and 88 (ASV CD DCA 677) has the right lilt and style. It should delight anyone who prefers this music on modern instruments. As a matter of fact, Haydn on modern instruments has been doing so well on records lately that it might almost be considered a counter-trend, balancing the recent triumphs of early-instrument ensembles.
Apart from the scholarly and practical arguments for or against the modern use of gut strings, valveless horns and lowered pitch, the new sound of old instruments has given a special tang to a lot of familiar music and piqued listeners' interest. That is good, but it would be silly to argue that this is the only way to play old music -- just as it is silly to forbid Bach to pianists. What matters most, ultimately, is musicianship, and that can reach high levels with old or new instruments.
One new group, the Cantilena Chamber Players, has begun a complete Haydn cycle on modern instruments, and, on the evidence of its first CD (Chandos CHAN 8737) containing Symphonies 1 through 5 conducted by Adrian Shepherd, the set should get a warm welcome. Cantilena is at the moment a small ensemble, specially commendable for its clarity of sound and agility of phrasing, and in these performances you can hear symphonic music going through its formative stages. By the time the series gets to Symphony 104, a very different kind of orchestra will be needed -- something like the orchestra of St. Luke's, perhaps. As conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras on the Telarc label (CD-80156), this New York ensemble has a richer sound and virtuoso technique -- qualities eminently suited to Symphonies No. 31 ("Hornsignal") and 45 ("Farewell"). The performances are vigorous and well-controlled. The digital recording has a strong impact, putting the listener almost on the conductor's podium.
The sound is not quite so close up in the Delos Haydn series, featuring conductor Gerard Schwarz and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but the cooler Delos audio perspective has its charms too and the playing is precise and sensitive. The special interest of the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, conducted by Adam Fischer on several Nimbus CDs of Haydn's "London" Symphonies, is that it records in the Esterhazy Palace at Eisenstadt, where Haydn worked and many of his symphonies had their first performances. The acoustics on these discs are warm and nicely detailed; the 45-member orchestra's players are drawn from the leading Austrian and Hungarian orchestras, and the performances are expert and stylish though they contain no startling revelations.
For most listeners, I suspect, the primary attraction of music on old instruments is the slightly exotic timbre -- the fact that these violins, pianos and horns are recognizable for what they are but at the same time different, sometimes startlingly different, from their modern counterparts. That attraction is certainly strong in a recording of Haydn's Piano Concerto No. 11 in D (Teldec 244 196-2) with Herbert Tachezi playing the fortepiano and Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Concentus Musicus. The reticent timbre of the solo instrument and the quick decay time of its notes give this well-known music quite a different flavor and considerable charm. The differences are subtler, on the whole, in the Sinfonia Concertante on the same disc, which has violin, cello, oboe and bassoon soloists producing a rich variety of archaic sounds.
Natural horns, with a very well-rounded but sometimes slightly shaky sound, are the primary point of interest on Nimbus NI 5190, which has horn concertos by Joseph Haydn and his brother Michael as well as Joseph's "Hornsignal" Symphony (No. 31) featuring four horns. The sound is intriguing, and a comparison of this recording with the Mackerras disc noted above should give you a fair idea whether you like old instruments, modern instruments or both. An early instrument orchestra that produces a well-integrated sound is La Petite Bande, conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken. On Virgin VC7 90743-2, this ensemble plays three tempestuous works from Haydn's "Sturm und Drang" period: Symphonies No. 26, 52 and 53. Its ensemble playing is so good that one almost misses the (probably authentic) imprecisions that used to be fairly common but are becoming less so in early instrument orchestras.