When Nikolaus Harnoncourt died at 86 in March, music lost an important conductor, a deeply inquisitive mind and a powerful force for disruption of the status quo.
Harnoncourt began his professional career as a cellist with the Vienna Philharmonic. But in 1953 he founded the Concentus Musicus Wien, which would become a major player in the historically informed performance movement. In later years, Harnoncourt also conducted more mainstream ensembles, including the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Concertgebouw, and the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics, with stunning results.
Through it all, the Concentus Musicus remained Harnoncourt’s home base. In May 2015, Sony captured performances of Harnoncourt conducting this seasoned original-instrument ensemble in Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies at the Vienna Musikverein.
Both symphonies abound with the striking contrasts between gut strings and the early 19th century wind and brass choirs, those hallmarks of Harnoncourt/Concentus readings.
Tempos are not extreme, but often vary considerably within individual movements, as Beethoven said they should. Phrases are eloquently shaped, as if touched by grace. No expressive device, from startling fortissimos to time-stopping pauses, is given short shrift. If conceptual freshness is audible in every detail, the music is communicated with the naturalness of speech.
But for me, the most deeply moving aspect of these performances is the golden aura of joy that surrounds them. The most tragic moments of the Fifth Symphony imply a ray of hope.
Part of the credit must go to Harnoncourt’s ever-evolving view of Beethoven. But I wager that all the musicians onstage realized that a very significant collaboration, for them and for the rest of us, was nearing its end. You can hear their heart-lifting spirit of grateful celebration.
It might be tempting to call this recording Harnoncourt’s “last word” on Beethoven. But for him there was no definitive point of arrival, only the ongoing exploration, guided by constant reexamination and historical insight, of what he called “the mystery” of great art.
Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845) composed more than 70 operas, which early music specialists are now rediscovering and recording. Born in Bavaria, Mayr composed his first attempt at opera, “Saffo ossia I riti d’Apollo Leucadio,” in 1794 for the Teatro La Fenice in Venice.
Mayr settled in Bergamo in 1802, studying with the music director of the city’s cathedral, whom he would eventually succeed. He remained there the rest of his life, composing a copious amount of church music but also symphonies, chamber music and operas. Mayr is perhaps best remembered for having plucked a young boy named Gaetano Donizetti from obscurity in his adopted city to become one of his students.
“Saffo’s” libretto by Antonio Simeone Sografi embroiders on the story, almost certainly invented, of the death of Sappho, the renowned poet of ancient Lesbos. In love with a hunter named Phaon, who is mourning the death of his wife, Sappho goes to Cape Leucadia to visit the temple to Leucadian Apollo. From high on the white cliffs, those accused of crimes were sometimes made to leap into the sea 200 feet below, as a way to prove themselves innocent or cleanse themselves of burning passion, if they survived.
Andrea Lauren Brown, a soprano from Wilmington, Del., brings a strong mixture of vocal colors to the demanding role. There is occasional stridency at the top of her voice, but Brown excels in slow arias such as “Soave, dolce, cara è la morte” (death is gentle, sweet, and dear) in Act II. The role of Phaon, created for castrato Girolamo Crescentini, here is performed beautifully by the Korean soprano Jaewon Yun.
The mezzo-soprano Marie Sande Papenmeyer brings a solid chest voice to the role of Apollo’s consecrated prophetess, the Pythia, at the center of an agitated prophecy scene in Act II, while soprano Katharina Ruckgaber and tenor Daniel Preis have fine supporting turns as friends of Sappho.
Franz Hauk plays the harpsichord for recitatives and conducts the instrumentalists of the Concerto de Bassus, an ensemble devoted to the resurrection of Mayr’s works, joined by the Simon Mayr Chorus and members of the Bavarian State Opera Chorus.
The singular nature of this world premiere recording excuses its few shortcomings, including tenor Markus Schäfer, too often shy of the mark in terms of intonation as Sappho’s fellow poet Alcaeus of Mytilene.
In love with Sappho himself, Alcaeus tries to stop her from making the Leucadian leap but ultimately steps aside in favor of Phaon, who comes to his senses and brings Sappho back from the edge of disaster.