Celtic Caravans is a classic example of a nicely executed program of music tethered to a faulty concept. The works included circle in an orbit around the arrangements of British Isles folk songs that Franz Josef Haydn, often with the help of assistants, did toward the end of his life. These songs make up a fascinating and little-known part of Haydn's output; many of them go far beyond simple harmonizations, and Haydn, who spoke English well after two extended sojourns in London, often responded to the texts in detailed ways. Many of the settings are delightful; check out track 24, Sir Watkyn's Dream (better known as The Ash Grove) for an example of how Haydn adds a nice bit of instrumental interest while leaving a familiar tune alone. You can see why these arrangements were hits in their day, leading Haydn (and Beethoven, too) to keep churning them out. The CD also includes anonymous vocal and instrumental arrangements of Scottish and Welsh songs published by Robert Bremner -- the chief predecessor to George Thomson, the Scottish publisher for whom Haydn wrote his arrangements. The disc is rounded out by a selection of Haydn's English Canzonettas and by a couple of Beethoven's small variation sets on British folk tunes, the latter played on flute and fortepiano. Soprano Julianne Baird has a winning voice for this repertory, and the fortepiano and harpsichord work of Linda Burman-Hall catches the music's dimensions perfectly. All in all, this disc makes it very easy to imagine what the buyers of Haydn's arrangements did with them when they got them home in 1810.
Unfortunately, you'd never guess any of this from the album's cover, which proclaims only Celtic Caravans: The Road to Romanticism. Even the liner notes admit that the word "Celtic" is misused here; it denotes an essentially modern concept that came into being only many decades after this music was written. The cover smacks of an effort to appeal to Celtic music fans who may or may not know what they're actually getting here. The notes, too, are misleading in many respects. They discuss Beethoven's folk song arrangements, but there are none of those included on the album. Instead, we hear instrumental pieces from the composer's two sets of Variations on National Airs -- related to the folk pieces in a general way, but very different and altogether more involved creations of Beethoven's late period. And the Haydn canzonettas for the most part are Italianate in nature rather than British. These are attractive performances of music that would have been familiar to a British public in the time of Haydn and Beethoven, and for the most part they're a lot of fun. The influence of British Isles folk culture on the Romantic movement and the role folk music played in the styles of Haydn and Beethoven, however, both await more accurately focused exploration.