George Clifford and Dominika Fehér violins, Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, The Amadè Players, Nicholas Newland
Music history frequently reminds us of the place occupied by Mannheim in the development of the symphony, at the same time overlooking the equally important part played by composers based in Vienna. This appealing CD featuring three composers who made important contributions to the early symphony should help redress the balance. The most senior of the trio is Karl Ordonez, born in Vienna in 1734, whose C major symphony is also the most old-fashioned of the works recorded here. Scored for strings alone and cast in four brief movements, it opens with a serious Adagio that still hints at contrapuntal writing. An Allegro driven by busy passage work is followed by an urbane Andante disrupted by dynamic contrasts, while the concluding Presto has the feel of a country dance. Nicholas Newland’s informative notes are a little dismissive, but I find it a rather engaging work.
Less so to my mind is the Concerto for two violins in C by Carl Dittters (von Dittersdorf), also a native of Vienna and today probably best remembered for being one of the famous string quartet that included Haydn and Mozart as well as the Bohemian-born Wanhal (Vaňhal). Dittersdorf was also the author of a charming autobiography, his music always striking me as accurately reflecting his good-natured writing. The present concerto opens with a march-like Maestoso that adds spice by adding minor inflections, before progressing to an easy going Adagio that intersperses cantabile writing with little passages of dialogue for the soloists. The final Presto is more ambitious in scale, with a long orchestral introduction. Like the concerto as a whole it includes much writing for the solo instruments together, giving more the impression of a concertante than a genuine concerto. Odd moments of suspect intonation aside, it is given a fine performance by George Clifford and Dominika Fehér.
The remaining three pieces are by Johann Baptist Wanhal, born in 1739, the same year as Dittersdorf. Much the finest work on the disc is his Symphony in A minor (Bryan a2). Newland has edited a new version of the symphony which he claims restores two (of four) horn parts and the Minuet. Both however were included on the recording by Concerto Köln, whose performance may be preferred by some for its finish and greater tautness. That said, the Amadè Players well capture the typical minor mode intensity of the opening Allegro Moderato, a movement with an impressive development. Given that it adopts dance rhythms and is predominately chordal, the second movement is rather curiously headed ‘Cantabile’, while the Minuet reverts to the minor. The final Allegro opens with hushed expectation before its four-chord motif is repeated forte to announce a movement of dynamic drama that enters ever more turbulent territory as it progresses.
The Violin Concerto in B flat (Weinmann IIb:Bb1) opens impressively with a long orchestral statement before the soloist enters with the same material. The central section includes some bravura writing, while the succeeding Adagio introduces attractive cantabile writing and the final Allegro steps out brightly to introduce a movement that develops with considerable inventiveness. Clifford again gives a fine performance, though his cadenza outstays its welcome. Unusually for a programme otherwise devoted to orchestral works the final work is choral, one of two Requiems in E flat Wanhal apparently composed in memory of his parents. This one is much the less ambitious, a brief work without solo contributions and featuring simple homophonic, at times unison, writing for the choir. The mood throughout is one of sweetly expressed tenderness, the effect touching. The Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge would not I imagine consider itself among the elite of Oxbridge choirs, but it copes well enough with the modest demands of the work, some imprecise ensemble notwithstanding. Otherwise the performances, which feature very good orchestral playing, are directed by Newland with a sure and idiomatic hand.