Today, Nikolaus Harnoncourt is regarded as an old master of authentic performance practice. In the late 1960s, his sometimes controversial recordings of Baroque music made him a name to look for – or to look out for, depending on your tastes! In recent years, his repertoire on discs has broadened, and now, one can hear his scarcely less provocative thoughts on Bruckner and Smetana, for example. These Bach Guild discs, reissued by Artemis Classics, take us back to the early 1960s, however, when Harnoncourt was just starting to attract attention outside of the European mainland.
These two discs are examples of early work that Harnoncourt was doing in the realm of authentic performance. All of the instruments are from either the 1600s or 1700s, or modern copies thereof. No recording date is listed for the first disc; my guess is circa 1960. At that time, Marin Marais and Jacques Hotteterre were even more obscure than they are today, and François Couperin was hardly less so. Here, Harnoncourt takes a much less astringent approach than he would be taking later in the decade; these performances are quite mellow, and the instrumental timbres are pleasant – even down to the slightly quacky Baroque oboe and the veiled tones of the transverse flute. Harnoncourt's interpretations are appropriately courtly; they are dignified but not unyielding. Sweet melody never relinquishes its winning hand on this CD.
The second disc, recorded in 1961, also has a lovely nut-brown sound to it, thanks to the prevalence of violas da gamba in Harnoncourt's ensemble. (One or more recorders join in on several of the selections as well.) The varied program is divided into four parts, devoted in turn to French, English, German, and Italian composers, and Harnoncourt takes pains to differentiate the regional styles. Taste and subtlety are in the forefront; it's almost as if Harnoncourt were trying to ease that generation's listeners into the shocks and surprises that were yet to come – his Bach recordings for Telefunken, for example.
The digital remastering is very fine. There is a hint of age on the master tapes, but the warmth of the sound is the dominant characteristic. On the down side, the cover art is ugly and unimaginative, and the two programs are short. (Nothing has been added from the original LPs.) Still, with a list price of $6.98, there's little reason to complain. Here's pleasure that is old-fashioned but certainly not dated.
Copyright © 2004, Raymond Tuttle