CD Review

Reviews from across the North Sea about Das Alte Werk


© Chris Green, December 2009



Monteverdi: L'incoronazione di Poppea.

Warner 2564 69261-1 (3 CDs)

Vivaldi: Gloria.

Pergolesi: Stabat Mater.

Warner 2564 69258-9

Handel: Water Music (complete) - Organ Concerti Nos 13 and 15.

Warner 2564 69259-4

Handel: Jephtha.

Warner 2564 69258-7 (3 CDs)

Mozart: Il re pastore K 208.

Warner 2564 69259-9 (2 CDs)

Soloists, Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

As a very young record collector, I remember being very proud when I could collect enough money to buy a new LP, especially if it had a yellow label and bore the brand Deutsche Grammophon. Sometimes I had to settle for the cheaper Heliodor edition, but they came from the same stable and one could rely upon recording quality and performances.

Now, many years later my tastes are somewhat more eclectic for with the restructuring of the recording industry, much less is obvious between the different major brands, and some of the smaller labels manage to compete with quality recordings, CD liner notes and artists if they are not the glittering galaxy that were once the pride of major companies such as EMI, Decca, Philips and, of course, Deutsche Grammophon.

Occasionally there comes along a series which manages to re-ignite some of that youthful excitement, and so it is with a set of reissues from Warner which re-packages recordings made by Teldec Classics on the Das Alte Werk (The Old Work)  label. Now does that all sound confusing? I hope not.

In this batch of five reissues, most from the 1970-90s, one is immediately impressed by the solidity of the jewel boxes and the boldness of the print text declaiming the titles of the recorded works with the artists' names in smaller font. No "cross-over" hype here. What we have is a series of vividly recorded operatic, oratorio and orchestral works starting with one of the earliest operas. Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, composed some four decades after historians reckon that the first opera was "invented". The story rather glosses over a tragic tale of deception in Rome. Few people get slaughtered and the seductress wins out in the end. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is the conductor of all of these releases and in this recording employs the kind of authentic band of instrumentalists to colour this highly stylised work. The 1974 recording holds up well, but then the series got many plaudits for technical excellence (Warner 2564 69261-1).

Vivaldi was born about thirty years after Monteverdi's death, but he learnt much from his older countryman. His Gloria RV 589 is more operatic than sacred, In 12 short sections, the work makes extensive use of solos and duets. In its 27 minutes, the work explores many different vocal colours, and Concentus Musicus Wien has the right credentials to paint such a picture as they do in the companion work, Pergolesi's Stabat mater, composed days before his death and contributing disproportionately to his posthumous reputation (Warner 2564 69258-9).

The 250th anniversary of Handel's death may just about be over, but Das Alte Werk make sure that his music is represented in a way that does justice to his many facets. Harnoncourt conducts his Viennese musicians in the complete Water Music, and two organ concertos in which Herbert Tachezi - regular keyboard player with the band -is soloist (Warner 2564 69259-4). No half measures with rasping horns blazing out and some interesting tempi. The same team also is joined by a fine team of vocalists for the complete oratorio, Jephtha (Warner Classics 2564 69258-7).  Included in the line-up are British singers, Elizabeth Gale (soprano) and Paul Esswood (alto). The oratorio was to be Handel's last, and by the time he came to compose Act III he was totally blind. The Old Testament setting was not an immediate success and how many choirs now could ever know the joy of some of the great choruses such as When his loud voice in thunder spoke or How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees! Harnoncourt manages to keep the lengthy work moving and the only drawback in this release is that you have to visit the Warner Classics website for the libretto which can be downloaded.

Finally to Mozart's sublime opera Il re pastore, the libretto commissioned by the Austrian Empress in 1751 (the same year as Handel composed Jeptha). Mozart came to it in 1775 after many of his contemporaries had had a go at setting the tale of the "shepherd king". This fine example of opera series which summarises courtly life and artistic tastes, is delivered by five fine soloists and the Concentus Musicus Wien (Warner Classics 2564 69529-9). Again, the libretto has to be downloaded, but this is a small price to pay for a fine reissue.

So, in summary, five releases that celebrated Das Alte Werk's origination in 1958, and a suitable reminder than quality will endure.