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Franz Ignaz BECK (1734-1809)
Six Symphonies Op. 1: Sinfonia No. 1 in G minor [12:24]; Sinfonia No. 2 in F [11:42]; Sinfonia No. 3 in A [9:06]; Sinfonia No. 4 in E flat [8:12]; Sinfonia No. 5 in G [11:29]; Sinfonia No. 6 in C [6:06]
New Zealand Chamber Orchestra/Donald Armstrong
rec. Brierley Theatre, Wellington College, New Zealand, August 2001. DDD
NAXOS 8.554071 [59:00]

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Haydn may have been called the "Father of the Symphony" but the genre certainly preceded him with composers such as Sammartini and Johann Stamitz making significant early contributions.

Franz Beck started life in Mannheim and was taught by Stamitz before spending time in Venice and Naples then eventually settling in France. He seems to have been an interesting character, reputedly leaving Mannheim after a duel and then eloping from Venice with his bossís daughter. In the midst of such intrigue the present symphonies were published in Paris in 1758 and were soon followed by three more sets. Beck then appears to have lost interest in the form. They were originally styled as Overtures but, given their consistent three-movement form have become known as sinfonias.

Allan Badley states in the booklet that Beckís symphonies have "long been regarded as amongst the most striking of the mid-18th century". On the evidence of this disc that seems a plausible claim but Beck is hardly a well-known figure. For example, he doesnít warrant an entry in the current edition of the Oxford Companion to Music. Recordings of his music have so far been quite rare although there is a Naxos disc in their series "The 18th century symphony" partly devoted to some his later symphonies (8.553790). The series also features two discs of symphonies by Stamitz and it is not clear to me why this new release isnít considered to be part of it.

Each of the sinfonias has a central andante framed by two quick movements. Most of the finales are marked Presto but the second has a notable Vivace minuet. The opening G minor symphony is perhaps the most interesting and, in the extended opening allegro, seems to point towards Haydn. Within the set, there is plenty of variety of mood and imaginative touches abound making an hour in the company of this disc pass by quickly.

The New Zealand Chamber Orchestra was as unfamiliar to me as Beck but it was also pleasing to make their acquaintance. Formed in 1987 as an offshoot of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, they play on modern instruments and are directed by their leader Donald Armstrong. Their playing is lively and they give these works a fairly light touch. Orchestral numbers are not given but I would guess about twenty string players with harpsichord continuo. The recording is well-balanced and was produced by Stephen Managh, the founder of the orchestra who, sadly, did not live to see the disc issued.

This CD is recommended to anyone interested in the origins of the symphony and to collectors of worthwhile little-known music. Please Naxos can we have the rest of Beckís symphonies?

Patrick C Waller


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