Naxos Releases its First Blu-ray Production, The Virtual Haydn: Complete Works for Solo Keyboard

“Tom Beghin belongs to the very few concert pianists with a professional musicological background who can turn his discoveries of rhetoric and other intellectual features in classical scores into fascinating new and impressive interpretations.”

László Somfai, author of The Keyboard Sonatas of Joseph Haydn,

University of Chicago Press, 1995.

On October 27, 2009, Naxos of America released a groundbreaking project—and its first Blu-ray production— from McGill University’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology, entitled The Virtual Haydn: Complete Works for Solo Keyboard. The brainchild of performer and musicologist Tom Beghin, Tonmeister and producer Martha de Francisco, and recording engineer Wieslaw Woszczyk, The Virtual Haydn employs virtual acoustics for the first time in a recording of this magnitude.

The set features four double-layer Blu-ray discs containing 15 hours of music, offered in both 5.0 surround (DTS-HD) and high-resolution stereo (PCM), as well as three hours of HD video, including a “making of” documentary Playing the Room, with subtitles in Dutch, French, German, and Japanese. Additionally, the user may navigate from one “virtual room” to the next—or from one instrument to another—mixing, matching, and comparing the performance of a short piece for musical clock, for a total of 7 x 9 possible combinations. A beautifully designed 64-page booklet contains richly illustrated program information as well as three informative and imaginative essays by the producers. Smart Blu-ray pop-up menus allow for efficient navigation through a wealth of material.

The music of Haydn has been a longtime passion and area of study for keyboardist Tom Beghin, whose innovative scholarship, especially in the domain of musical rhetoric, has been widely recognized, most recently in his editorship of Haydn and the Performance of Rhetoric (University of Chicago Press, 2007). The Virtual Haydn, as Beghin explains, “is still very much about Haydn, but has become about so much more. These discs challenge all conventions of performing, recording, and listening, and introduce new paradigms.”

Listeners experience the complete works for solo keyboard in nine virtual rooms—that is, replications of actual rooms where Haydn, or a typical player of his keyboard music, would have performed. They have been acoustically sampled, electronically mapped, and precisely recreated in the recording studio. Featured rooms range from the most private to the most public, from Haydn’s own study in his Eisenstadt home to the famous Holywell Music Room in Oxford, England.

Further enhancing this unique experience of the Haydn repertoire are the seven historical keyboards on which the music is performed. All seven instruments, from a 1760s clavichord to a 1798 English grand piano, were built for this project by today’s leading artisans. This release captures the first performances on three of the instruments: a 1755 harpsichord with an idiomatic “Viennese short octave,” a 1788 Tafelklavier, and a 1780 fortepiano with an early-Viennese “stoss”-action. Modern audiences are able to experience these instruments in the acoustical environments for which they were originally designed.

Surrounded by a semi-sphere of 24 speakers, Tom Beghin plays as if in the historical room. The sounds of his performance are captured, mixed with reverberation responses identical to those of the actual room, and retransmitted almost instantaneously through the sphere, allowing him to engage “the room”—that is, to “play” with it, then and there. It is as if it is 1774 and the listener is seated next to Prince Nicolaus Esterházy in the grand Ceremonial Room of his Eszterháza Palace while the artist—possibly Haydn himself—is playing on the Prince’s newly-acquired double-manual harpsichord. By contrast, we experience Haydn’s sonatas for Princess Marie Esterházy, played on a Kober square piano, in the intimate setting of a Prunkraum of Vienna’s Albertina. Or we embrace the more public eighteenth-century concert experience of the acoustically accurate yet virtual English concert hall for a performance on a Longman, Clementi & Co. piano of the two concert sonatas that Haydn wrote for the celebrated Therese Jansen.

Musicking happens through instruments, in rooms, by people. No repertoire celebrates this experience more than Haydn’s keyboard works. This revolutionary recording project stands as a tribute to the timeless appeal of a composer whose life and career revolved around similarly experimental interactions with technologies and audiences.

Tom Beghin is at the forefront of a new generation of interpreters of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century music. His discography includes 10 CDs on the Bridge, Claves, Eufoda, and Et’cetera labels. As a scholar he has published in major musicological journals and volumes, and has co-edited Haydn and the Performance of Rhetoric (University of Chicago Press, 2007). His mentors include Malcolm Bilson, James Webster, Rudolf Buchbinder, Jean Goverts, and Alan Weiss. He is currently Associate Professor at McGill University.

Martha de Francisco is an internationally acknowledged leader in the field of sound recording and record production, and has credits on over 300 recordings, most of them for worldwide release on the main record labels. She has worked in the best concert halls and has collaborated with some of the greatest classical musicians of our time. Her research topics include the latest surround-sound techniques, music recording with virtual acoustics, and the aesthetics of recorded music. At present she is Associate Professor at McGill University.

Wieslaw Woszczyk holds the James McGill Professorship in Sound Recording at McGill University. Internationally recognized as a researcher and 
educator in audio technology, he is the founding director of CIRMMT and McGill’s Graduate Program in Sound Recording. He was President of the Audio Engineering Society, Chair of the AES Technical Council, and is currently AES Governor. His current research addresses virtual acoustics, high-resolution audio, and remote real-time communication of multisensory content using broadband networks.