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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Johann (Jan) Baptist VANHAL (1739-1813)
Symphony in D minor (1778)
Symphony in G minor (1771)
Symphony in C major (1775)
Symphony in A minor (1770s)
Symphony in E minor (1770s)
Concerto Köln
Rec July 1996, Studio Deutschlandradio, Cologne
ELATUS 2564 60340 2 [73.21]


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Vanhal was an important figure during the era in which Mozart rose to prominence. Moreover the two knew one another and played quartets together in Vienna during the 1780s. By then it is likely that Vanhal had already composed the symphonies that are collected on this disc. Three of them are known to have been composed during particular years of the 1770s, while the others are likely also to have been from that decade.

The excellent and informative notes by Paul Bryan, who has also edited the scores, put all these things into perspective. He begins by reminding us that relatively little is known about Vanhal in comparison with some of his more famous contemporaries. He made Vienna the base for his career, although he hailed from Bohemia.

From the stylistic point of view these symphonies (or sinfonias) are rather typical of their time, and more particularly of the phenomenon known as the ‘sturm und drang’. This represented an intensification of expression and feeling into a musical style which was otherwise more concerned with entertainment. There are several examples of such an approach in the symphonies from the 1770s by Haydn and Mozart, of course, and Vanhal too fits this mould.

In short, this style brought forth a rhythmic and harmonic intensity of expression, driving the music forward in faster movements, adding feelings of pathos in slow movements. And Vanhal is a master of the style. If there is a weakness, and it could be argued that it is emphasized in these rather driven performances by Concert Köln, it is that the structures are organised in two and four bar phrases. This can result in what might be called a ‘chronic short-windedness’, an intensity which is powerful in the short term but perhaps results in a less than memorable larger-scale experience.

Concerto Köln perform skilfully and with a great sense of discipline and teamwork. No leader or director is acknowledged, but that does not imply a lack of direction and focus. If there is a criticism it is that there might have been a higher priority given to poetry at the expense of energy. However, without seeing the score or comparing with alternative performances this is perhaps a harsh verdict and not entirely fair. For these committed performances, captured in excellent sound, serve Vanhal’s cause well and bring his exciting music before a wider public.

Terry Barfoot

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