We pause in our Wagner musings for a report on a purveyor of pure beauty. Sony has released a huge (61-CD, 3-DVD) collection of the complete recordings under its label by Austrian cellist and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016). To sample through this gargantuan box is to hop from one point of perfection to another.
First (as always) – Bach. The Christmas Oratorio (2007) is set sweetly apace with gorgeous contributions by soloists Gerald Finley, Christine Scahfer and Werner Gura. The previously unreleased performance of Cantata BWV 36, “Schwingt freudig euch empor,” is given a bouncy and entertaining turn, with snappy strings from Concentus Musicus Wien.
The Christmas section of Handel’s Messiah (2005) has baroque embellishment, with substantial intelligence and taste, while nevertheless lacking the urgency, poignancy and brightness of my favorite recording, with Colin Davis leading the London Symphony Orchestra (1966). Michael Schade’s “Comfort Ye” is very sweet indeed, and opportunities for choral pomposity (such as the ending of “And the Glory of the Lord” and the entry of “O Thou Who Tellest Good Tidings to Zion”) are converted to humility, marked by beauty of line and sensitivity of dynamics. Gerald Finley sings the recitative “Thus Saith the Lord” but the aria is taken by alto Anna Larsson, for reasons not immediately apparent. It’s interesting that the recitatives are accompanied by organ rather than harpsichord.
I associate Harnoncourt with Teldec recordings of Bach and Sony recordings of Mozart. The Requiem (2004) is a very satisfying performance – the chorus is muscular and supplies the voice of fate, while the soloists (Christine Schafer, Bernarda Fink, Kurt Streit and Gerald Finley) express the delicacy, apprehension and compassion that persists through this surprising and daring work.
Then we have unexpected delights, including (among many others) Haydn’s Creation (2003) crisply performed to remind you just how extraordinarily imaginative this great composer was; Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess; Brahms’ German Requiem (2010), in a performance that somehow doesn’t quite settle into itself; Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, and a selection of works by Bartok, Verdi, Dvorak and others.
The DVD of the Salzburg production of Magic Flute (2012) is not well produced for video, but proves entertaining enough with Jens-Daniel’s astute and stripped-down stage direction. Certainly the moment for me was the opening, when after several hours of listening to CDs, I watched the maestro acknowledge his audience, turn to the orchestra, put on his spectacles, and without a baton open his hands — and an E-flat chord by Mozart came out.