Classical cds: A rousing round from a right royal lad
Sunday 13 September 1998
Sndor Vegh: Mozart `Prague' and `Jupiter' Symphonies (Orfeo, CD)
Most of us know that Henry VIII was the composer of "Greensleeves". He wasn't, of course - the song was described as "a new Northern Dittye" in the middle of Elizabeth's reign - but we may finish listening to All Goodly Sports wishing that he had been; for this record contains little which is half as subtle or as artfully contrived.
Henry was not untalented. The Oxford History of Britain remarks on his "relatively able but distinctly second-rate mind", but this seems unfair. Can they name a prince of the House of Windsor who "speaks French, English, Latin, sings from books at sight ... and jousts marvellously" in addition to playing virginals, recorder, organ, lute and cornet and drawing the bow with greater strength than any man in England?
A single manuscript contains the King's 34 extant compositions. There are carols, part-songs, songs in which the sign-off is "Thus saith the kyng, the eighth Harry". There are pieces for instruments alone; rather early examples as it happens. There's foreign stuff which Henry added bits to - "clumsily", according to Grove's Dictionary. We find a little death, a little grief, and an impressive round on the subject of departure and return - return being what rounds do best, of course. But, with most of the music dating from the happy days before Catherine of Aragon failed to bear the King a son, the general tone is rather aggressively upbeat.
How does it sound? One notices bagpipes. They are there at the beginning of "Pastyme with good companye", Henry's best-known song, and they are there, as they always are, at the end. It's a civilised rugby song with a rousing refrain on the subject of huntin', singin' and dancin'. The moment when a large menagerie of medieval instruments gets in on the game is enthralling: riding the wave of a big crescendo, making a loud and glorious noise, at least one of them makes a sound like sandpaper scraping on a drainpipe.
But there's a snag. Henry and his contemporaries didn't specify how their music should sound, and Sirinu's choice of instruments - in some cases the decision to use instruments at all - is theirs alone. So although five-course gitterns after Hans Ott by David Carter are doggedly used and the performers take advice on Tudor pronunciation, singing "I" as "oi", "love" as "luv", and "though" with a spluttering guttural to rhyme with "loch", a lot of the other things they do are just guesswork. One song "has words" - surely a bonus. But where to put those words? No indication at all.
Sirinu are caught in one of the big authentic- performance traps - between knowing quite a lot and knowing nothing whatsoever. Their response is to cover all options, to pick and mix. Henry kept a few medieval minstrels in his service, they tell us. So we are taken on a switchback ride, charging around with tabors, sackbuts, hurdy-gurdys and curtals one moment - a whole medieval armoury of instruments - only to be dallying with sweet Renaissance viols and recorders the next.
Enlightened confusion? Indecision? Or an unmasterable desire to demonstrate medieval crumhorn technique? The result is a stylistic compote, although a well-documented and a lively one. Nobody is suggesting Henry's songs should be translated into the language of Will Self and the accompaniments played on a Yamaha grand. But it's increasingly an option worth considering.
A wonderful new recording of Mozart's Prague and Jupiter Symphonies on the Orfeo label represents a different kind of authenticity. This is the authentic recording of an actual, real, live performance, with not even the mild laryngeal clearings of Salzburg audiences taken out. For some people audience participation on CD remains a problem; comparisons with 78rpm recordings of Stalin's speeches, with the speech on sides 1- 9 and the applause on side 10, have been made. But it can add to the sense of occasion.
The performance of the Prague by the Camerata Academica of Salzburg has to be one of the most graceful, stirring and spontaneous on record. Mozart's nervous, propulsive string syncopations; the singing lines of his counterpoint (both symphonies a savvy, classical tribute to the Baroque); the bassoon-darkened skies of the slow introduction: Sndor Vegh, the conductor, grasps and illuminates the musical ideas with perpetual insight.
Vegh, who died last year, was a violinist, conductor and teacher whose contempt for what he called "the McDonald's school of music", in which everything sounds the same, remains a spur to undoctrinaire, lively musicianship even after his death. His performances, whether of two of Mozart's greatest symphonies, or of Mozart's piano concertos in a remarkable late collaboration with Andras Schiff, were entirely inauthentic in the sense that they did not use period instruments. But, in the sense that they were the sincere response of a great musician to a very great composer, they were as authentic as could be.
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