Saturday, December 6, 2014

Retro Record Review: Vivarte 60-CD box

Partly to celebrate my new and improved sound system, I ordered a copy of the big box of CDs from Vivarte, Sony's early music label: the Vivarte Collection. I certainly haven't listened to all the discs yet, but I have browsed through the first 24 in some detail and sampled a couple of others. This is a great collection! An incredible amount of outstanding music at an excellent price (from Amazon it worked out to about $1.16 per disc or perhaps 1/10th of the original release price).

A huge plus is the inclusion of a 245 page booklet (in fairly small print) with all the original liner notes. In the case of the six symphonies included by Joseph Haydn, those notes were written by H. C. Robbins Landon, the world's leading Haydn scholar. You don't realize how much you miss liner notes until you start reading some good ones. They are particularly valuable in the case of some of the more creative recording projects, like the one on music from the court of Gaston Febus (1331 - 1391) which I dare say few of us know anything about! Speaking of creativity, this is much in evidence in not only the selection of repertoire: Bach lute suites on lute, Beethoven string trios, Heinrich Schütz, Psalmen Davids (all 26 on two discs), a whole disc of Nicolas Gombert, two discs of lute music by Sylvius Leopold Weiss, the whole of Haydn's Die Schöpfung on two discs, three discs of Telemann Paris Quartets (which might be a couple more than you really need), and on and on and on.

The collection focuses on certain artists such as Anner Bylsma for the cello music (often playing on a spectacular intact Stradivarius cello), Lutz Kirchhof for the lute music (whom I have not run into before, but who is very capable), Bob van Asperen for the harpsichord music, Gustav Leonhardt for the organ music, the Huelgas Ensemble with Paul van Nevel for the Medieval and Renaissance ensemble music, Tafelmusik with Jeanne Lamon for the earlier orchestral music and Bruno Weil and The Classical Band for the later. These are all very fine artists and the performances are generally to be admired.

But it must be noticed that the recordings represent a slice of the history of the early music movement. They seem mostly to originate between 1987 and 1998. The overall producer and recording supervisor for the whole series is Wolf Erichson who seems to have been absolutely tireless around 1992 as recording after recording credits him with supervision. One of the artifacts of this era, as Richard Taruskin has noted in some of his reviews, is that there was a certain strictness, perhaps even a rigidity, about ideas about tempo. Things are a bit looser these days, I suspect, but back then, it was very much the thing to take tempos briskly and with little or no rubato. The reason for this was acknowledged to be to reclaim all this repertoire (in this series extending as far as Schumann and Brahms) from the excesses of Romantic interpretation with its long, flowing legato lines, too flexible tempos and especially, too slow tempos. I recall reading a Jan Swafford comment on a new recording of the St. Matthew Passion, that it turned one of the most poignant moments in history into a cheerful, uptempo dance! I noticed this myself in some of the orchestral pieces conducted by Bruno Weil. The first movement of the Great C Major Symphony by Schubert was pretty much ruined by a too-fast tempo in my view. Mind you, the last movement really seemed to benefit from a very brisk tempo, so there you go. But in other cases, I really don't think the ideal is to have the sensation of being frog-marched briskly through really beautiful music as if you are being taken to a booking for possession!

But this is something I just ran into a couple of times, so not a crucial issue. Mind you, there are lots of pieces I have not heard yet so your milage may vary. Here is a look at the complete contents of the box:

Click to enlarge

It's Christmas, do yourself a favor and pick up this very refreshing and enjoyable collection at a bargain price. The plusses: huge collection of familiar (Vivaldi Four Seasons, Bach Brandenburgs) and unfamiliar (Schütz, Gombert and lots of other Medieval and Renaissance composers) music with a minimum of warhorses and a maximum of fresh and underexposed repertoire, outstanding performances on the whole, focus on some excellent performers and original instruments. Minuses: a limited number of performers whom you will encounter again and again, some ideological rigidity in some performances.

One of the interesting things about this collection is that it demonstrates how 20th century taste (for sharper sonorities, crisper rhythms and brisker, stiffer tempos) transformed the core repertoire of the 18th and even into the 19th century, overruling the aesthetic preferences of the Romantic era. Taruskin makes the point that early music movement performances of Bach were made to conform, essentially, to the taste of composers like Stravinsky. Whether you fully agree or not (and I don't think I quite do), it is something to ponder as you listen to some of these discs.

Here is a little sample of the music of Sylvius Leopold Weiss, friend of J. S. Bach and excellent Baroque lutenist composer. Played by Lutz Kirchhof:

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