Period-instrument debate has faded Classics: Public has accepted both modern and period instrumentation, and then, sometimes, sheer beauty conquers all.

June 09, 1996|By Anthony Tommasini | Anthony Tommasini,NEW YORK TIMES

Not so long ago, period-instrument recordings of baroque or classical works routinely proclaimed their authenticity on their covers. This was a matter of artistic pride as well as a strategic selling point.

Those days are largely gone. Hostilities have waned between advocates of period and modern instruments. Polemics have mostly been replaced with sober essays in the CD booklets by scholars and performers.

In a sense, this shift indicates an acceptance by the public of period-instrument interpretations of older works as valid and often revealing though not inherently superior. And a cadre of critics has been fortifying the resolve of listeners who still prefer their classical works played boldly on rich, modern instruments.

Four recent recordings of operas by Handel, Mozart and Beethoven challenge easy generalizations about the relative merits of "authenticists" and "traditionalists."

By far the most surprising release is Georg Solti's performance of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" (London 444 174-2; three CDs). The recording was made in May 1994, when the conductor was 81. And there seemed little reason to expect much of it.

Years ago, Solti's proclivity for dynamic, full-bodied music-making started crossing into bombastic excess. Moreover, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe might have seemed a curious match for the imperious Solti. This 50-member ensemble is renowned for its clarity, buoyancy and lean textures.

Yet Solti's work is articulate and lithe. From the opening chords of the overture, the playing is balanced, detailed and emphatic without sounding forced; the presto is taken with dash, yet never sounds pushed.

A sense of rhetoric

Most striking is Solti's sense of the music's rhetoric. He punctuates phrases and reveals the direction of each line and the internal structure of each larger section clearly though never didactically.

Solti elicits radiant and humane performances from a mostly stellar cast. Renee Fleming, in sumptuous voice, is an exquisite Fiordiligi. She is that rare soprano who can leap to a soft, sustained high A with ease, then allow the sound to fill out naturally.

Early-music fanciers might have wished for more embellishment of melodic lines. But the intelligence and vocal distinction of Fleming's work offer something deeper than any single approach to performance practice.

A recording of Beethoven's "Fidelio" conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a pioneer in the period-instrument movement best known for his performances of baroque music (Teldec 4509-94560-2; two CDs), offers an interesting comparison. He, too, leads the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

Harnoncourt, who has extensive experience conducting modern orchestras, brings his knowledge of period practice to bear without sounding pedantically "authentic."

The horns' block chords provide not just harmony but also a rhythmic bite that prods the music forward, a characteristic of natural horns in the early classical era.

In the Act II dungeon scene, Harnoncourt balances the sound of the contrabassoon doubling the string bass line to create an eerie effect. And although period-instrument specialists generally advocate clear, light textures, he renders some undulant two-note figures in the low strings as almost pitchless shimmerings.

Yet what most distinguishes Harnoncourt's "Fidelio" is its visceral impact and imagination. The pauses at the opening of the overture are the work of a conductor with dramatic flair. The confrontation scene in Act II, where Leonore risks her life to save her husband, Florestan, a political prisoner of a corrupt Spanish prison governor, shows measured restraint but unrelenting tension.

The cast is strong, topped by Charlotte Margiono's arcingly phrased Leonore and Peter Seiffert's ardent, clear Florestan.

The conductor William Christie, deservedly celebrated for his exquisite period-instrument performances of baroque works, particularly French operas, with Les Arts Florissants, moves into new territory in his recording of Mozart's "Magic Flute" (Erato 0630-12705-2; two CDs). The qualities listeners cherish in his work are present in abundance.

Christie has a reputation as a taskmaster firmly in control, and it mostly pays off here. The orchestra, chorus and soloists have clearly worked with single-minded dedication; careful thought lies behind every phrase.

The voicings of orchestral chords, the lyrical expansiveness and the interplay between the instruments and the singers are all remarkable. The performance is euphonious and stylistically convincing.

Christie's cast of younger singers with lighter voices is impressive. And he rightly asserts that these were the types of voices for which Mozart wrote.

But Christie also states in an accompanying essay that it would be "dishonest of me not to admit that I wanted our own version to be a sort of riposte to other versions."

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