LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: La Harpe Reine
WORKS: Haydn: Symphony No. 85 in B flat (La Reine); Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice – Dance of the Blessed Spirits; Hermann: Harp Concerto No. 1; Krumpholtz: Harp Concerto, Op. 7 No. 5
PERFORMER: Xavier de Maistre (harp); Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
CATALOGUE NO: HAF 8902276
Two fine French period-instrument bands get showcased in these CDs: one is the most celebrated of them all, Les Arts Florissants, the other a lively group of newcomers – Concert de la Loge, formed two years ago. Of the other points in common, most obvious is that each disc offers a mixed bill of late-18th-century fare focused upon the grandest of Haydn’s Paris symphonies, No. 85, nicknamed ‘La Reine’ in honour of Marie Antoinette – the work was apparently a favourite of hers.
More interesting still is the way each examines a different aspect of Parisian musical and concert life in the two decades before the Revolution. William Christie explores the vogue for the harp flourishing in the era of the Austrian-born queen, herself an accomplished harpist; Le Concert’s founder Julien Gauvin focuses on contemporary Parisian enthusiasm for Haydn as encouraged by the original Concerts de la Loge Olympique – this was the concert-giving body responsible for commissioning those ‘Paris’ symphonies. Both CDs recreate Parisian concerts of the day – in principle and effect, if not necessarily in exactness of reproduction. (The Harmonia Mundi disc is in fact a live recording of an Arts Florissants concert given at Versailles last June.)
And as wholes both, to my taste, prove at once stimulating and finally somewhat bitty. The outstanding feature of Christie’s collaboration with the superb Xavier de Maistre is an exquisitely refined account of the enchanting Fifth Harp Concerto (1778) by the Prague-born Krumpholtz, a key figure in the growth of contemporary harp interest. But the other items, a bland, long-winded harp concerto by Johann David Hermann and a curiously lightweight reading of the Haydn, fail to add the expected ballast. For the 1785 Haydn symphony premiere, at least 40 violins were the available complement; Gauvin has 12 and Christie, absurdly, only six.
Gauvin’s Haydn has rather more bite, if hardly the largeness or boldness of style demonstrated by (say) Bruno Weil (on Sony Vivarte) or Sigiswald Kuijken (Virgin). But his other works, a Sturm und Drang -style symphony by the German-born, French-domiciled violist-composer Henri-Joseph Rigel (1741-99), and two elaborate soprano arias by Giuseppe Sarti and JC Bach, though most beautifully delivered by Sandrine Piau, don’t really reward more than a single hearing.