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Josef MYSLIVEČEK (1737-1781)
Music for Strings, Volume 1
Six Sinfonie Concertanti, Op. 2 (string orchestra arrangement) (c. 1767):-
Sinfonie Concertanti No. 6 in C major, F6 [9:54]; No. 1 in B flat major, F1 [10:09]; No. 2 in E major, F2 [14:55]; No. 5 in D major, F5 [11:09]; No. 3 in G major, F3 [10:51]; No. 4 in A major, F4 [11:38]
Uralsk Philharmonic Orchestra/Gary Brain
rec. September 2004, Kazakh Theatre, Uralsk, Kazakhstan. DDD

These six Sinfonie Concertanti from Josef Mysliveček, in arrangements for string orchestra, are claimed by Toccata Classics to be premiere recordings. In a truly international mix the music of the Czech-born Mysliveček, who adopted Italy as his home, is played by the Uralsk Philharmonic Orchestra from West Kazakhstan conducted by the New Zealand born Gary Brain.

Toccata Classics declare on their website that they are a label that, "has been created expressly to explore unjustly neglected repertoire." Certainly the music of the eighteenth century Bohemian composer Mysliveček tends to be heard only infrequently outside the Czech Republic, although a quick google reveals that there are a surprisingly large number of recordings available in the catalogue, mainly on the Supraphon, Hungaroton, DG Archiv, Chandos and MDG. No recordings as yet, it seems, from the mighty Naxos label. Clearly Mysliveček’s reputation is spreading: I notice that the renowned Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena has included four Mysliveček arias, together with several from Mozart and Gluck, on her 2001 Prague recital ‘Le belle immagini with the Prague Philharmonia under Michel Swierczewski on Deutsche Grammophon 471 334-2.

Mysliveček was born in 1737 in Prague, the oldest of identical twins, to a prosperous mill owner. It is said that Mysliveček may have been given tuition by the prominent composer Felix Benda who was a close neighbour.

In 1763 with the help from local Benedictine and Cistercian establishments and assistance from influential Count Vincent von Waldstein, Mysliveček left to study composition in Venice. An excellent violinist he became a student of Giovanni Pescetti an association that soon resulted in the composition of an opera Semiramide first performed at Bergamo in 1765. Success came the next year in Naples with the opera Il Bellerofonte and several commissions from Italian theatres were soon to follow. Mysliveček settled in Italy where he became known as ‘Il Divino Boemo’, or the ‘Divine Bohemian’.

In 1770 Mysliveček met and became friends with the teenage Mozart in Bologna, where Mysliveček was an Accademia Filarmonica member, meeting Mozart again in Verona in 1771 where their relationship ran into major problems. They were to repair their friendship some years later in 1777 in a Munich hospital where Mozart visited Mysliveček who was recovering from the removal of his diseased nose. In fact, Mozart often referred to Mysliveček in his correspondence, once writing, in a letter home, of his exceptional qualities of, "fire, spirit and life". In view of their close association it is not surprising that certain similarities of musical style have been noted between the two composers. In 1778 the Neapolitan Gazzetta universale gave a report of the premiere of Mysliveček’s opera L'Olimpiade at the Teatro San Carlo, "which the audience accorded a remarkable ovation".

Although residing in Italy, Mysliveček did on several occasions visit cities such as Prague, Munich and Venice as he attempted to establish his reputation. His final operas, proved unsuccessful, his name became lesser regarded and his health declined. Mysliveček died in Rome in 1781 in wretched poverty with a funeral that was said to have been paid for by an English benefactor, an ex-pupil called James Hugh Smith Barry.

Not surprisingly owing to the length of time he spent in Italy, Mysliveček wrote in a style that could be described as Italianate. In the booklet notes biographer Daniel E. Freeman writes, “Refinement, not innovation, was generally Mysliveček’s strong suit, but he was a true pioneer in the composition of two major species of chamber music: wind octets and string quintets scored for two violins, two violas and cello." His large output consists of twenty-eight operas, ten oratorios and cantatas; some forty five symphonies, numerous concert overtures, eight violin concertos, a large body of chamber music and instrumental scores.

The six Sinfonie Concertanti, Op.2 were thought to have been composed in Italy around 1767 and were published by Jean-Baptiste Venier of Paris as ‘VI Sinfonie Concertanti, o sia Quintetti per due Violini, due Viole, e Basso.’ It is not certain if this opus 2 set are the first string quintets to have been written but they are claimed to be the earliest collection of quintets for two violins, two violas, and cello ever published. The Uralsk Philharmonic Orchestra under Gary Brain perform these scores as string symphonies, with multiple players per part, an instrumentation that Mysliveček specified as an alternative in the original manuscript. These opus 2 scores evoke the same qualities of refinement, passion and sensitivity that Mozart was said to appreciate in Mysliveček’s operas and concertante music.

The six Sinfonie Concertanti are unusual in that they call for two violas rather than two cellos and they contain, "grand musical gestures" characteristic of a quasi-symphonic style rather than that more usually encountered in chamber music. All cast in three movements, four of the six string quintets follow the conventional fast-slow-fast design. No.1 in B flat major is in the fast-slow-minuet form and No. 6 in C major is arranged slow-fast-fast.

With these scores I found the tempos adopted by Gary Brain and the Uralsk Philharmonic problematic. Generally the movements marked presto are played only moderately quickly and come across more like an allegro. In fact it was difficult on occasions to tell the allegro and the presto movements apart. Furthermore the andante movements are performed exceptionally slowly and feel more akin to an adagio. I experienced the unity of ensemble from the Uralsk Philharmonic to be less than perfect with the timbre of the strings disappointingly unpleasant.

The outstanding booklet notes are a credit to their author Mysliveček authority Daniel E. Freeman. I was not impressed with the recorded sound from 2004 in the Kazakh Theatre in Uralsk, Kazakhstan. The balance of the recording is tolerable but the sound is revealed as bone dry and strangely boxy with a slight echo - sonics not of a standard acceptable in today’s highly competitive market.

Rare and interesting scores from Mysliveček a composer who deserves to be better known but I have strong reservations about the standard of the performance and quality of the sound. Sadly, I cannot imagine returning to this release.

Michael Cookson

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