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Mozart: The symphonies – the beginning and the end

Il Pomo d’Oro directed from the fortepiano by Maxim Emelyanychev
77:00
Aparté 307

This is the first in what is planned to be a long-term project to record all the Mozart symphonies, with the addition to each volume of what Maxim Emelyanychev calls in his introductory note a ‘sort of musical hors d’oeuvre’. In the case of the present issue that is the Piano Concerto in A, K488, which may cause more than a few eyebrows to rise describing it in such terms. As the CDs title suggests the symphonies included here are Mozart’s very first work in the form, Symphony No 1 in E flat, K16, composed in London at the age of eight in 1764, and the last, No 41 in C (‘Jupiter’), K551, composed in Vienna in 1788. It’s quite a thought-provoking idea since it reminds us of the huge journey taken by the symphony in the hands of Haydn and Mozart, who between them took the form from being a modest three-part introduction to an Italian opera or other dramatic work to the status of magnificent concert works such as Haydn’s ‘London’ symphonies or the great trilogy with which Mozart signed off from the genre, No’s 39 to 41. K16 is indeed a classic example of the genre’s sources, a charming work in only three brief movements, its relationship to dramatic works apparent in the contrasts the young Mozart provides right from the opening bars, a commanding ‘call to attention’ immediately relaxing into a gentle, quiet legato response.

Before looking at any specific examples, let’s try to establish a few general parameters that will presumably also set the scene for future issues. I think the first, and perhaps surprising thing, to say is that these are thoroughly conservative performances.  That may sound odd but Il Pomo d’Oro, of which Emelyanychev is chief conductor, is more likely to be found in the opera house (often figuratively), where it has at times been involved with some radical performances and productions. With the odd arguable exception (the final Allegro assai of the concerto is a little fast for my taste, the central Andante of K16 a little slow) tempos throughout are sensible, while the orchestral playing and balance are excellent throughout.  Every repeat is taken, an admirable policy that here in particular allows the great contrapuntal coda of the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony to crown the immense peroration of the movement with exceptional power. For a period-instrument performance, the solo playing of the concerto is unusually conservative as to ornamentation, with only very modest embellishments made in the central Andante and no suggestion of the piano playing in ritornelli. Incidentally, the piano played by Emelyanychev is a fine copy of a Conrad Graf of 1823. There is no suggestion of a continuo in the symphonies, which one would have expected at least in the early symphony.

Emelyanychev’s playing of the concerto is fluent, with excellently articulated finger-work in the outer movements and considerable sensitivity in the Andante, which features some lovely piano string playing complemented by the beautifully tuned playing of the composer’s glorious wind ensemble writing. At times I did wonder if K16 was a little prosaic, the last thing expected from these performers, but the ‘Jupiter’ is a splendidly bold performance, with its many contrapuntal elements well brought out. Little bits of individuality include the hint of tympani drum rolls (instead of Mozart’s single beats) in the Minuet. In the Andante Cantabile (ii) the yearning motif that pervades is given a rare and ineffable sadness, while the pain that for me is never far from the surface is inflected with even greater emotion in the development. The great finale is given a thrilling drive, but not at the expense of the movement’s inherent nobility and sense of taking the listener on an enthralling, unpredictable journey that will reach its destination only in the contrapuntal wizardry of the coda.

In sum, these are highly satisfying performances that auger well for the long traversal ahead. If not startlingly revelatory, emulation of this standard will ensure Emelyanychev’s performances will make for a fine library of the symphonies for anyone choosing to collect them.   

Brian Robins

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Recording

Haydn – Symphonies 13 – “Hornsignal”

Il Giardino Armonico, conducted by Giovanni Antonini
80:18
Alpha Classics Alpha 692

This latest addition to Giovanni Antonini’s outstanding integral Haydn cycle turns to a trio of symphonies that fall into the category of what the notes delightfully term Haydn’s ‘horn-heavy’ symphonies. Particularly notable among these is, of course, No. 31 in D, nick-named the ‘Hornsignal’ and a work older readers may recall was a great favourite of Sir Thomas Beecham’s. There are few more thrilling openings in music than that of the ‘Hornsignal’, with the unusual scoring of four horns braying their brave fanfares with aplomb and total lack of inhibition. The symphony dates from 1765, around the time Haydn had become de facto Kapellmeister at Esterházy. There is indeed much about this symphony to suggest that Haydn was using it give the players of what had virtually become ‘his’ orchestra a showcase in which to show off their talents. The Adagio (ii) is a three-way dialogue between the horns, a solo violin and solo viola, while the Finale (Moderato molto) opens with a cantabile melody – beautifully played by the strings of Il Giardino Armonico – before proceeding to a set of variations in which cello, flute, violin and horns (of course) are all given a place in the limelight, the whole rounded off by the double-bass – a winning idea – before the tempo speeds up for a brief Presto coda. The whole symphony is in Haydn’s best ‘great entertainer’ mode, having no pretensions to profundity; it is accepted as such with relish by Antonini’s splendid players just as it must have been by Haydn’s.

Symphony No 59, known as the ‘Fire’ Symphony, dates from four years later. No convincing explanation has been advanced for the name, but it seems to stem from a mid-19th-century catalogue of Haydn’s work, where the name ‘La Tempesta’ is also associated with it. Whatever the background the name is not inappropriate, since from the outset the symphony has an unpredictability, even eccentricity about it that may recall the leaping of flames from one point to another. There is also a strong element of theatricality as in the second movement, where the steady slow march-like motif gives way to cantabile strings and later rude outbursts from the horns. The finale is a glorious romp, with horns again to the fore and, in this performance, a truly exhilarating sense of forward momentum.

Also from 1769 is Symphony No 48, known as ‘Maria Theresia’ from the probability of it having been composed for the name-day of the Austrian empress.  Again the outer movements in Antonini’s performance are notable for the high-level energy, outstanding balance, and bravura playing (horns to the fore again) that has been such an outstanding characteristic of the series as a whole, but here I’d like to focus on the exquisitely lovely playing of the Adagio (ii). Muted strings and veiled horns give the opening a distanced, in lontano impression, while mysterious murmuring broken chords evoke a nocturnal atmosphere. The silky refined beauty of the string playing is breathtaking.

This is another stellar addition to a cycle that is already well-proven to be infinitely and endlessly rewarding, each issue leaving the listener impatiently awaiting its successor.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Mozart in Milan

Robin Johannsen soprano, Carlo Vistoli countertenor, Coro e Orchestra Ghislieri, conducted by Giulio Prandi
76:58
Arcana A 538

‘Mozart in Milan’ the cover modestly announces. Modestly because it’s not just Mozart. This excellent and well-filled disc also contains works by Johann Christian Bach, who as a young man spent some years in Italy, where he became a Roman Catholic. Of specific interest is the period he spent in Milan (1757-62) under the patronage of Count Agostino Litta and remote tutelage by the famous authority on counterpoint, Padre Martini of Bologna. Then there is the scarcely known Giovanni Andrea Fioroni, a native of Pavia appointed maestro di cappella of Milan Cathedral in 1747, and the even more obscure Melchiorre Chiesa, maestro al cembalo at the Regio Ducale theatre and later La Scala in addition to holding a number of posts as an organist.

We know from an admiring letter of Leopold Mozart that Chiesa took over as second harpsichordist after Mozart ceased to direct his new opera Mitridate (of which in keeping with the custom of the day he directed only the first three performances) at the Reggio Ducale in December 1770. Mitridate was the first product of a commission received by the teenage Mozart from Count Firmian, Governor-General of Lombardy – Milan then being in territory ruled by the Habsburgs – for three operas, the last of which was Lucio Silla, first performed in December 1772. It was for the leading man of Lucio Silla, the famous castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, that a couple of weeks later Mozart wrote the motet Exsultate, jubilate, K165. The motet is here sung by the US soprano, Robin Johannsen. Charles Burney’s description of Rauzzini as having a ‘sweet and extensive voice, a rapid brilliance of execution great expression and an exquisite and judicious taste’ might easily have been tailored to Johannsen’s performance, which is, quite simply, one of the very best of this frequently performed showpiece I have heard. The ability to cope with the bravura writing of the opening aria and concluding ‘Alleluja’ are not so uncommon, but what is rare is the care and insight Johannsen brings to colouring the text. One example must suffice; the final line of the second, lyrical aria concludes with a perfectly executed trill on the final word ‘cor’, which the singer allows to swell slightly, thus bringing added fervour to the final plea – ‘console our feelings from which our hearts sigh’.

It would be interesting to know the date of composition of Chiesa’s solo motet for alto, Caelo tonati, for it follows precisely the same form as Exsultate, jubilate, which is to say a bravura aria followed by a recitative and concluded by a cantabile largo and Alleluja. The text takes the familiar operatic metaphor of stormy seas to express the torments of the sinful soul, the second aria a plea for peace and light. If lacking the musical quality of the Mozart, it makes for a fine virtuoso showpiece, here receiving its first recording. It is sung with great accuracy and intensity by countertenor Carlo Vistoli, whose performance would be a match for Johannsen’s if he had a less approximate, more sustained trill. As it is, there is much left to admire in the astonishing bravura singing, especially the ornamentation and passaggi of the recap of the opening aria.  

The J C Bach works are Vespers pieces, the composition of which was overseen by Padre Martini and first performed in Milan, a Dixit Dominus of 1758, and a Magnificat in C from 1760, one of three settings Bach made of the text during this period. The former is also a first recording. They combine contrapuntal passages with homophony and have a typical layout, being divided into a succession of movements, in the case of Dixit clearly demarcated into choral and solo aria movements, while the Magnificat employs a concertante solo SATB group that emerges from the chorus. Both are highly attractive pieces, displaying Bach’s familiar Rococo melodic elegance grace in abundance.

Finally, we have a pair of brief choral works. Mozart’s Misericordias Domini, KV 222/205a is an Offertory work composed in Munich for the first Sunday of Lent in 1775. Consisting of only two lines of text, it alternates between the strict chromatic counterpoint of the first and the more lyrical homophony of the second. Fioroni’s even briefer O sacrum convivium is a largely homophonic setting of the sacramental antiphon with piquant harmonies, its reverential restraint fully justifying the esteem accorded the composer and suggesting his large sacred output would benefit from further exploration.

All these choral works are given thoroughly accomplished and committed performances by Coro Ghislieri under its experienced founder and director, Giulio Prandi. In the Bach Dixit Dominus, the tenor and bass soloists are respectively Raffaele Giordani and Alessandro Ravasio, the latter particularly impressing in the aria ‘De torrente’, sung with secure tone, excellently articulated fioritura and concluding with an almost unheard of rarity – a finely executed trill by a bass. An exceptionally rewarding CD that will fully engage the attention of anyone interested in mid-18th-century sacred music.

Brian Robins

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News

Podcasts from Paris

Fans of the French Baroque are in for a real treat if they visit https://expodcast.cmbv.fr/en – six podcasts have been produced by the Centre de Musique Baroque Versailles. To a rich musical backdrop, all sorts of information is shared (either in English or French) from the golden era of Louis XIV to the dawn of the Revolution. These are highly recommended!

Brian Clark

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Recording

Mozart: Piano Concerto no. 23, Symphony no. 40

Andreas Staier fortepiano, Le Concert de la Loge, Julien Chauvin violin & director
56:59
Alpha 875

Named in part – they had to drop ‘Olympique’ after protests from the French Olympic association – after the Parisian concert organisation that commissioned a set of symphonies from Haydn, Le Concert de la Loge was founded by the violinist Julien Chauvin in 2015. Today it is firmly established as one of the many outstanding period instrument orchestras in France, having gained a particular reputation (at least on record) in Classical repertoire.  For the present CD, they have joined forces with the distinguished forte-pianist Andreas Staier, who plays one of Mozart’s best-loved concertos on a very fine copy of a Walter instrument of c.1790 built by Christoph Kern of Staufen. Those coming across the disc may be surprised to find that the G-minor Symphony has acquired an unlikely nickname – ‘Le Dodécaphonique’. Apparently, it was chosen by the musicians of Le Concert following a contest among their concert audience, though not I suspect without the prompting of Chauvin, who in his note draws attention to the start of the development of the opening movement and its use all the notes of the chromatic scale, with the exception of G natural. Perhaps he might with better purpose have noted Mozart’s extraordinary use of chromaticism throughout the symphony; it is responsible for engendering much of the work’s tragic drama and is a prime feature that distinguishes it from many another turbulent G-minor symphony, including Mozart’s own earlier example, K 183.

Leading from the first violin desk, Chauvin’s way with Mozart is quickly established with the Don Giovanni Overture that opens the CD. His tempos tend to be on the brisk side, leading to a danger of brusqueness not always avoided. On the credit side, however, there is an inherent sense of drama, which is aided by splendid balance between strings and the exceptionally accomplished wind, and a keen ear for detail. The strings are not always a match for the wind and there is a trace of sourness in the Overture. One movement where greater forward momentum certainly does pay dividends is in the central Adagio of the A-major Piano Concerto, which without losing the depth of feeling the music conveys – some of the most profound even Mozart ever wrote – better conveys its siciliana rhythm and avoids the trap of sentimentality into which it sometimes falls. For the most part, this movement is also exquisitely decorated, as it must be if it is to be expanded from its skeletal state. It is to Staier’s credit that he mostly avoids the temptation to rewrite rather than ornament the melodic line, and only near the conclusion (from bar 88) do I feel he slightly over-eggs the pudding. Otherwise, Staier’s performance is marked by the nimble and precise finger-work that is a hallmark of his playing, with judicious touches of rubato underlining just how fine a musician he is.

The G-minor Symphony is given in the second version with clarinets, as is usual. Unlike the overture and concerto it was not recorded in the Arsenal de Metz – Cite Musicale but in the Notre-Dame de Liban church in Paris with a warmer, more generous acoustic  (and a substantially differently constituted orchestra). It’s a fine performance – fine enough indeed to have wished that Chauvin had taken the second-half repeat of the finale, again illustrative of Mozart’s astonishing contrapuntal chromatic mastery, though a steadier tempo might have been more effective here. But all-in-all these are challenging and rewarding performances of familiar masterpieces that make the listener prick up his ears anew, not always a foregone conclusion.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Cello Concertos from Northern Germany

Gulrim Choï, Ensemble Diderot
64:13
Audax Records ADX11200

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Ensemble Diderot’s exploration of pre-classical German music has recently focussed on the culturally dynamic city of Berlin, and these four attractive cello concertos, two of which are receiving world premiere recordings, certainly deserve a place in our understanding of it. The most famous composer represented here, probably due to his later move to London, is gamba virtuoso, composer and Bach pupil, Carl Friedrich Abel, indeed the only one of the four composers here that I have previously come across. By contrast, Ignác Frantisek Mara, Markus Heinrich Grauel and Johann Wilhelm Hertel have been treated less kindly by posterity, sinking into relative neglect. In these characterful performances by cellist Gulrim Choï, the quirky originality of all four composers becomes evident. It is interestingly in the slow movements of their cello concertos that their individuality becomes most apparent, but these are remarkably accomplished works full of musical inspiration. I often feel that the music from the melting pot of the pre-classical period, with its heady ethos of exploration and experimentation, is more interesting and exciting than that of the more settled classical period itself, and this is very much the case here. Combining technical assurance and an engaging sense of adventure, all four composers represented have something valuable to say, and Choï and the Diderot Ensemble give them vivid and eloquent expression here.

D. James Ross

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Haydn: Deutsche Lieder

Alice Foccroule, Pierre Gallon
64:48
passacaille PAS1101

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These delightful accounts of 18 of Haydn’s 24 Deutsche Lieder Hob. XXVI will undoubtedly win many fans to this relatively neglected aspect of the composer’s oeuvre. The decision to alternate harpsichord and fortepiano allows Pierre Gallon to provide a degree of textural variety – the title page suggests ‘clavier’ which allows for either, although it has to be said that the accompaniments contain figures which to my ears sound distinctively pianistic. The songs were published in two batches in 1781 and 1784, for no better reason than that the composer had failed to find adequate texts to complete the project for the earlier date. All aspects of the presentation suggest that they belong essentially to one set, although the composer’s interest in finding quality texts is significant – a major feature of all the songs here is the strength of the lyrics and the composer’s immediate and sensitive response to them. Alice Foccroule has the ideal voice for this repertoire, beautifully focussed and expressive, and a vital element in the success of these recordings is her intelligent reading of the texts. The mature Haydn displays an advanced mastery of harmonic progression and lyrical and expressive melody, and these songs very much point the way to the subsequent flowering of German Lieder. As a small bonus, the performers give us a touching account of Abschiedslied, formerly attributed to Haydn, but now thought to be the work of Adalbert Gyrowetz. The fact that this song could have been considered to be by Haydn emphasises the composer’s influence on this genre, as well as usefully reminding us that Vienna boasted a large number of other fine composers like Gyrowetz, many of whom are nowadays unjustifiably neglected. 

D. James Ross

 

 

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The Library of a Prussian Princess

Ensemble Augelletti
60:25
Barn Cottage Records BCR024

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Anna Amalia, Princess of Prussia (and titular Abbess of Quedlingburg) is one of the great collectors of music to whom musicians owe a great debt. In compiling this intriguing programme, Ensemble Augelletti have searched through her remarkable library of more than 600 pieces, using it as a source for even the well-known pieces recorded here. These are placed side-by-side with less familiar repertoire, including music by Princess Anna Amalia herself, in the manner of a soirée in her palace on Berlin’s magnificent avenue, Unter den Linden. Reflecting the Princess’s devotion to the organ – she had one built specially for her in 1755, described herself proudly as ‘organist’, and had it moved with her to Unter den Linden – the continuo here is played on organ and viol with theorbo. The melody instruments are recorder and violin, although there is a disappointing lack of information in the notes as to precisely who does what and on what. As I mentioned, this imaginative programme plan allows for the very familiar to rub shoulders with the thoroughly unfamiliar – in the former category we have two trio sonatas by J. S. Bach, and one each by C. P. E. Bach, Handel, Corelli and Geminiani and in the latter, four fugues for trio by Princess Amalia. While not perhaps being of a standard with the other works, Amalia’s fugues are thoroughly workmanlike and full of original turns of phrase.  The playing from the Augelletti Ensemble throughout this CD is delightful and sympathetic, and they bring the same infectious enthusiasm to their performances as Princess Amalia seems to have brought to her Unter den Linden soirées – important events in their own right, and doubly so for having influenced those hosted subsequently by Sarah Levy, the great-aunt of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

D. James Ross

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Prussian Blue

C. P. E. Bach: Sonatas for flute, viola da gamba and harpsichord
Passacaglia
67:25
Barn Cottage Records BCR025

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All of the sonatas in this attractive selection date from the first half of the composer’s life and as the excellent programme note by flautist Annabel Knight points out, they demonstrate ‘the composer’s youthful spirit and distinctively emerging musical voice’. When we think what a characterful contribution he would go on to make at a crucial transitional phase in musical style, his individuality is already clearly on display here. There are three flute sonatas with BC, a sonata for unaccompanied solo flute, a gamba sonata with BC, and one of the ‘Prussian’ sonatas for solo keyboard. The Sonata for solo flute Wq 132 printed in 1747 is the latest work on the disc and is a wonderfully exploratory and other-worldly piece, reminiscent of the more famous music by Telemann for solo flute. It is played with immense sensitivity and technical assurance by Annabel Knight, whose reading of the more conventional Sonatas Wq 131, 124 and 125 is also delightfully musical and utterly engaging. Reiko Ichise steps into the spotlight for the Wq 136 Sonata for Gamba and BC, a curious work written for the virtuoso Ludwig Hesse in 1745 at a time when the gamba’s popularity was on the wane, indeed already almost entirely eclipsed by the cello, but when Hesse’s skills and French style of playing were still admired at the Berlin Court. Bach cleverly plays to Hesse’s strengths with music, which allows for technical display as well as evoking a charming French galant flavour. Reiko Ichise presents this demanding music with flair and panache, enjoying the technical challenges of this striking gamba swansong. Finally, it is keyboard player Robin Bigwood’s turn for the solo spotlight with the fourth of Bach’s Wq 48 ‘Prussian’ sonatas. Composing for his own instrument, Bach allows his harmonic and melodic imagination to run free to a degree unusual in the early 1740s. While I occasionally found myself yearning for the dynamic gradations possible on an early piano, it would have been an odd decision to introduce a different keyboard for this one item, and the harpsichord has the advantage of making the daring clashing harmonies all the more uncompromising. This is a thoroughly enjoyable CD, with all three members of Passacaglia demonstrating their individual musicality and technical prowess, as well as coming together with an admirably impressive sense of ensemble.

D. James Ross

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Prussian Blue

Flute music at the court of Frederick the Great
Sophia Aretz flute, Alexander von Heißen harpsichord
56:17
hänssler classics CD HC22024

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Frederick the Great’s association with the flute is well known. Although his love of music and the arts in general caused problems with his father, he persisted in establishing his own ensemble, acquiring all the latest music and studying with Quantz, one of the earliest virtuosi on the relatively new instrument. Once head of state, his Kapelle grew and included many of the biggest names of the day, including C P E Bach,* who is often portrayed as being unhappy in his role as a “mere” accompanist rather than the court composer. Perhaps there was some melancholy among the musicians – four out of the five pieces on this extremely impressive CD are in minor keys. The recital is bookended by a pair of three-movement sonatas by the king himself; while they are clearly the product of the age, these are no mechanical, half-hearted efforts – from the very first notes of the E minor sonata, we are drawn into a dreamy world of reflection; in the faster movement, his catchy melodies and clever passagework mean interest never wanes.  Also on the programme are a four-movement trio sonata attributed to Quantz (in which von Heißen takes the second “treble” with his right hand – hold on to your hat for one chord sequence in the second movement!), a charming sonata by Frederick’s sister, Anna Amalia, and – of course! – C P E Bach’s D minor sonata H569.

Aretz and von Heißen are perfect companions in this music. While she gracefully shapes the slower movements with a warmly caressing tone, she is utterly undaunted in the faster pieces – I had to re-listen to two passages several times to work out how she had managed to fit all of the notes into the time available! Like poor old Bach, von Heißen plays a mostly subservient role but, in crafting the harmonic background for the “star”, he is the master of slightly holding back or pressing on to keep the music alive – and the ability to play unequally between his hands is outstanding. For the perfect demonstration of these features, just listen to the opening of Track 8 (the opening Adagio of Anna Amalia’s sonata) – it is simply gorgeous!

Brian Clark

*Bach shared the position with Carl Friedrich Christian Fasch (son of the perhaps more famous Zerbst Kapellmeister, Johann Friedrich Fasch, who (coincidentally?) wrote at least one sonata for two flutes, whose source material is in Berlin…). The younger Fasch was recommended to the king by one of his leading violinists, Franz Benda, as “the most gifted of accompanists”.