Café Mozart

Haydn à l'anglaise

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To any potential buyer paging through notes to this release, the music involved must seem almost comically obscure. With few exceptions, these pieces are not the actual English-language songs ("canzonettas") composed by Haydn during his London visits in the 1790s; even where those do appear, they are mostly in instrumental versions by an English student of Haydn's, Thomas Haigh. Instead, the songs are generally of two types. The "songs as edited by William Shield," a prominent English composer of the 1770s and 1780s, are not really edited by Shield at all. They are German-language Haydn songs of the 1780s, fitted with new English texts by Shield or others (two volumes of these were published, and the second has no attribution). These were mostly written to order, although a few were loose translations from the German. The second type is stranger still, consisting of texts assigned to instrumental Haydn slow movements of suitably vocal shape. For these, executed by composer Samuel Arnold, there was no German text to follow, and texts by well-known English poets were used. On top of this, the performers from the English historical-instruments group Cafe Mozart have departed from the published music in several respects. They substitute several of the Shield texts with actual translations of the German originals by director (or "proprietor") Derek McCulloch. In one case, Too Late, Mother (track 6), this results in the restoration of the original raunchy sense of a song that Shield apparently felt was indecorous and replaced with a neutral lyric. The performers also add flute and guitar to some of the original accompaniments, for piano or harpsichord, and they make certain other small changes. All of this is exhaustively described in McCulloch's booklet notes. It all sounds like the most exacting kind of musicological exercise, but the big surprise is that it all works. There is no issue of "authenticity"; these versions were all quite successful commercially and represented the way many Londoners first heard Haydn's music. And the fact is that the composers involved knew what they were doing; the texts are generally more interesting than those of the English Canzonettas, and a few are hilarious, sexy romps. The music makes sense, and the performances are delightful. Emma Kirkby may not have the voice she once did, but for these domestic products it is entirely idiomatic, and she is nicely matched by tenor Rogers Covey-Crump. The four period instruments, most of all the bouncy English-style square piano, would be worth the purchase price by themselves. Heartily recommended, and not only to historical-performance devotees.

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