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Christopher Dingle
BBC Music Magazine, March 2010

This is extraordinary. Epithets such as ‘landmark’ or ‘ground-breaking’ are often used in the marketing of recordings, but this is one of those truly rare occasions when, in several respects, new ground is being traversed, with importance beyond the repertoire involved…this is as stimulating, sincere, thoughtful, spirited and joyful a traversal of Haydn’s solo keyboard works as you will find anywhere…Tom Beghin simply gives superlative performances.

Andrew Everard
Gramophone, December 2009

This four-disc Blu-ray set, called “The Virtual Haydn”, sees Beghin playing seven historical keyboards while surrounded by a semi-sphere of 24 speakers recreating rooms in which Haydn would have played. Created by producer Martha de Francisco and engineer Wieslaw Wosczyk, the Virtual Acoustic system works well, creating a realistic sense of ambience.

The music comes on three excellent-sounding audio-only Blu-ray discs, in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 or PCM stereo, while a fourth disc contains a “making of” documentary and a little game in which one can place the various instruments in each of the different acoustics. It’s an intriguing set, and fortunately nothing like a gimmicky as the concept may sound!

John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, November 2009


The first entry of Naxos back into hi-def multichannel releases, after their past delving into both SACD and DVD-Audio, is this super-extensive multichannel and hi-def video survey of every solo work of Franz Joseph Haydn, including some of those for which his authorship is doubted. There simply isn’t time nor space to list every single one of the selections here. Although the set features Blu-ray videos, and is also a DualDisc—in that there are both music discs plus a video disc—I have placed it in this section because it’s probably the highest-res album we have ever covered.

It would be wise to watch the three-hour video Blu-ray first, before listening to the over 14 hours of music-only Blu-rays. It has subtitles, by the way, in French, German, Dutch and Japanese. The documentary “Playing the Room” explains the very unusual approach to these recordings. The plan was to record Haydn’s keyboard music on seven instruments appropriate to each work, but also to do it in nine different equally appropriate spaces. For example, some of the intimate little works obviously written for the clavichord would be played in a room of Haydn’s actual house in Eisenstadt, whereas a big keyboard sonata would be performed on a two-manual harpsichord in a large and ornate hall of the Esterhazy Palace where Haydn was the court composer/performer. All seven instruments ranging from a 1760s clavichord to an English grand piano from 1798—were built especially for the project as copies of the originals, by leading instrument makers of today.

Now comes the unique twist in this project: the performer and music historian, Tom Beghin, didn’t perform in all those locations throughout Europe and Canada. Instead, he worked with producer Martha de Francisco and acoustical architect Wieslaw Woszcyk in applying “virtual acoustics” for the first time in a commercial recording such as this. The team sampled and mapped the acoustics of each of the nine performing environments, using three-point arrays of omni mikes as the main microphones, and other cardioid and omnidirectional mikes to pick up different shades of defined sound in various positions. They then took the recorded digital data back to the labs of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology of the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal. There Tom Beghin performed each of the works on the appropriate keyboard instrument in the middle of a sphere of 24 speakers—some of which you can see in the photo as the rectangular devices with 4 drivers per speaker.

He practiced the pieces within the domed sphere of 24 speakers, but for the actual recordings the speakers were turned off and a perfected mix of the convolution responses was send to headphones worn by Tom, and then mixed in the proper proportions with the pickup of his actual keyboard instrument. The producer explains in the tech notes how the sound of any instrument is a mix of its direct sound (including reverberation in its own case, as they discovered with the small clavichord) and the reflections from the surrounding walls, ceiling and floor. These reflections bounce around continually in the space, creating diffuse sound and reverberation, until they die out. What the Virtual Haydn project did was to isolate completely the separate components of the direct sound of the instruments and the reflected sounds of the environment, and putting them together again, using the virtual acoustics of the various historical spaces.

The video Blu-ray includes three other parts in along with the documentary film by Robert Litz and Jeremy Tusz. There are five selections presented as complete videos with DTS-HD surround. There is a Gallery of still photos of all the instruments and the various historical rooms. The most unusual portion is the “7 x 9 Matrix: Andante for Musical Clock.” It presents the same short Haydn work he was commissioned to compose for a mechanical musical clock of the period, played on each of the seven different keyboard instruments. The viewer can then select one of the keyboards, and with the remote select which of the nine historical room acoustics you want to hear it performed in. Taking 7 times 9 you thus have 63 different possible combinations! There is also a beautifully illustrated 66-page booklet with the set.

BD No. 1 is divided into four programs: Courting Nobility and The Music Lesson make use of the large Leydecker harpsichord and first a music room and then a larger hall at the Eisenstadt castle; Quality Time and Haydn’s Workshop uses pieces performed on a clavichord in Saxon Style, played in two different-sized rooms of Haydn’s own house. BD No. 2 has three programs: Your Most Serene Highness features the “Nicolaus Esterhazy Sonata” played on a French style harpsichord in the ceremonial Room of the Esterhazy Palace, The Score is the “Anno 1776 Sonatas,” played on a 1788 Tafel Klavier in the Chateau Ramezay in Montreal, and Equal to the Finest Masters presents the Auenbrugger Sonatas of 1780, played on an Anton Walter fortepiano in the Esterhazy Music Room. BD No. 3’s three programs are: Musical Letters to a Princess, with the “Marie Esterhazy Sonatas” of 1784 played again on the Tafel Klavier; Viennese Culture, which uses the fortepiano again in the festival hall of the Lobkowitz Palace in Vienna, and finally The London Scene—works written by Haydn in London played on a Clementi piano in the Holywell Music Room at Oxford University.

This is a sensitive, detailed and well-thought-out presentation—visually, sound-wise and note-wise. One comes away with an appreciation for the many varieties of keyboard instruments and how different they sound from today’s instruments. Also an appreciation for the major sonic effect the particular environment can have on the instrument being recorded. The documentary is a fine survey of the unusual project in hi-res 16:9 video, and the fidelity of all the DTS-HD Master Audio music tracks is of course superb. The great variety and most of all the historically/musically/acoustically accurate presentation of all of Haydn’s keyboard works is 100% more interesting than if Beghin had simply recorded a multi-disc set of all the Haydn keyboard works on the same instrument (or a couple instruments) in exactly the same hall or studio.

Flanders Music Centre, November 2009

NAXOS releases its first blue-ray production: A collaboration between Naxos and McGill University, The Virtual Haydn features 15 hours of music which listeners experience on seven historical keyboards and in nine virtual rooms. On October 27, 2009, Naxos of America release[d] a groundbreaking project—and its first Blu-ray production—from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT) and the Schulich School of Music of McGill University, 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 and aural architect 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 9 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.

Crystal Chan
La Scena Musicale, November 2009

Musical Avatars

For a few glorious minutes, you become Haydn. That’s the idea behind the Schulich School of Music Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT)’s latest star project. The first-ever recording using CIRMMT’s cutting-edge ‘room-capture’ technology celebrates the 200th anniversary of Joseph Haydn’s death. Virtual Haydn, a Naxos four-Blu-ray-disc set of the composer’s complete keyboard works performed by pianist and professor Tom Beghin, was released last month.

Before this, capturing period music had obvious flaws. Most recordings take place in or approximate the sound of concert halls. But those were uncommon until late in Haydn’s day. Recording in-studio and reproducing authentic performance spaces’ acoustics only in post-production means musicians play in dry, acoustically perfect rooms with little reverberation and cater their performance to this unnatural setting. Move the recording on-location, however, and one finds 18th century concert spaces now surrounded by modern noise and traffic. Myriad other factors get in the way: instruments such as square pianos and clavichords are rare, for example, and original instruments’ response and tone have degraded from aging.

Frustrated by these flaws, Beghin and Martha de Francisco, a noted recording engineer and producer, decided to collaborate on a revolutionary recording on their first day of teaching at McGill in 2003. Smooth-playing replicas of seven historically accurate instruments were commissioned, many the first of their kind in modern times; some can play then-common elements such as “Viennese short octaves” (requiring wider chords), which cannot be played on modern keyboards.

The tables really turned when CIRMMT founding director Wieslaw Woszcyk came along: what if, he suggested, their studio was transformed into Haydn’s study, or the Esterháza Castle in Hungary, where Haydn was the resident composer, or the Holywell Music Room, where Haydn played during the English tours that gained him celebrity status?

To do so, they developed technology capable of capturing the acoustic characteristics of these and six other rooms. These characteristics can then be plugged into a studio. Back in Montreal, Beghin performed pieces on specific instruments and ‘in specific rooms’ according to the carefully researched music history of Haydn’s repertoire. The music is manipulated live, so Beghin can hear the music as if he were in one of Haydn’s old haunts as he performs—no traffic or plane tickets necessary. Some sonatas are even recorded ‘in Haydn’s study’ at his clavichord, with the microphone configuration directing the sound from the player’s position. It’s the closest one can get inside a composer’s head.

“The old music becomes modern technology again,” said Beghin.

This crowning jewel of the historically informed performance movement comes with a making-of documentary and one-minute clips of the same music played in all possible pairings of room and keyboard for the listener to compare.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group