During the 1960s and '70s, each new arrival from the Telefunken (today Teldec) "Das alte Werk" series, devoted chiefly to Baroque and classical repertory, caused a rush of anticipation in certain quarters.
Would the latest from conductor-viola da gamba player (and, to pay the rent, rank-and-file cellist in the Vienna Symphony) Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his period instrument Concentus Musicus Wien be revelation or abomination?
We were showered with both. But there was no one involved in the period-performance movement, then in its infancy, who didn't listen.
Harnoncourt was--and remains--a provocateur and an explorer rather than a scholar, his practices seemingly based on inspiration and whim. But his novel attitudes toward articulation, rhythm, sonority and tempo certainly made other musicians think: His gaffes were as important--for proving how things should not be done, thus saving other musicians and recording companies vast time and expense--as his ear-stretching successes.
"Das alte Werk," quiescent in recent years, has been relaunched with a dozen mid-priced return engagements and nine new, full-priced titles.
Among the returnees is the 1963 recorded debut of Concentus Musicus, in its original chamber configuration: a tame beginning, devoted to historically important (pronounced "deadly dull") music, not at all hackle-raisingly performed, of the Mannheim Court by classical progenitors J.C. Bach, Holzbauer, J. Stamitz and Richter (91002).
In fact, among the whole batch of reissues there is only one example of Harnoncourt at his most outrageous, a relatively recent (1983) "Messiah" in which every tempo (and most are improbably slow) and every dynamic choice--the palette is comparable to Mahler's--seems predicated on the belief that every previous interpreter was an ignoramus and that French Impressionism was a contributing factor to the Handelian style (77615, 2 CDs).
More germane to the Harnoncourt influence is the original Concentus set of Bach's "Brandenburg" concertos (77611, 2 CDs), crudely executed by today's standards but sufficiently accomplished for its time (1964) to prove to the doubters that those old instruments actually could be played, and expressively too. And there's Harnoncourt's hugely influential and still effective edition of Monteverdi's "Orfeo" (42494, 2 CDs).
This first re-release further includes valuable non-Harnoncourt material, such as a collection of keyboard sonatas by C.P.E. Bach, with their constant sense of stylistic borders being tested and broached, executed with panache and intelligence by harpsichordist Bob van Asperen (77623, 2 CDs).
Among the new releases are a grotesque performance of the teen-age Mozart's comic opera "La Finta Giardiniera" (72309, 3 CDs) in which the efforts of a cast of top Mozarteans, including Edita Gruberova, Dawn Upshaw, Uwe Heilmann and Thomas Moser, are fatally subverted by Harnoncourt's inexplicably angry, noisily overemphatic, conducting of a thickly textured Concentus Musicus.
Then, as if to confound even his most dedicated antagonists, Harnoncourt presents a glowing, intensely joyous performance of that greatest and most neglected of Mozart's youthful sacred works, the "Credo" Mass, K. 257, superbly played by the Concentus, with a gorgeous solo contribution from soprano Angela Maria Blasi and ear-bogglingly precise, transparent singing by the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus, an invaluable partner in the best of Harnoncourt's recent work.
The coupling is another attractive, little-known Mozart sacred work, the Litany, K. 243, both works recorded live, and stunningly well, during the 1991 Graz Styriarte Festival. Not to be missed.