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Wenzl PICHL (1741-1805)
Sinfonia in C major, ‘Calliope’ (1768/9) [14:26]
Sinfonia in B flat major, ‘Melpomene’ (1768/9) [19:08]
Sinfonia in E major, ‘Clio’ (1768/9)  [17:53]
Sinfonia in D major, ‘Diana’ (?1768/9) [21:35]
Toronto Chamber Orchestra/Kevin Mallon
rec. 2-5 January 2005, St.Anne’s Church, Toronto
NAXOS 8557761 [73:02]


Pichl seems hitherto to have made only the most passing appearances on the pages of MusicWeb International, so some biographical information would appear to be in order.

Czech by origin – originally known as Vaclav Pichl – the composer was born in Bechyně in Bohemia. He received his early musical education there, then studied at the Jesuit College at Březnice where he served as a singer; he was then able to attend university in Prague, where he studied theology, law and philosophy, as well as developing his musical knowledge and ability. It was in the musical world that Pichl set about earning his living; our first certain knowledge of him as a professional musician belongs to 1760 when his he was listed as a member of the chorus at the Burgtheater in Vienna. In 1762 he was appointed first violinist of the orchestra in the Church of Our Lady in front of Týn, in the Old Town of Prague (where Tycho Brahe is buried). In 1765, he was engaged by Carl Ditters (i.e. Ditters von Dittersdorf) as assistant director (and violinist) of the private orchestra which served Bishop Adam Patachich at Grosswardein (now Oradea, in modern Romania). Pichl and Ditters became good friends and seem to have exerted a mutual influence on one another. When the Bishop’s orchestra was dissolved at the end of the 1760s, Pichl found work back in Prague and then at the Kärntnerthortheater in Vienna. His work gained him influential admirers, including the Empress Maria Theresa herself, and he was appointed music director to Archduke Ferdinando d’Este, the Austrian governor of Lombardy. From 1777 until 1796 Pichl worked in Italy and established many significant musical contacts there, his own work being much admired. Returning to Vienna – after the French invasion of Lombardy –  he remained musically active until the time of his death – indeed he died when he suffered a seizure whilst performing as a soloist in the Lobkowitz Palace in Vienna.

Pichl (like his friend von Dittersdorf) was a well-educated man with pronounced interests in the traditions of classical learning. He wrote Latin texts, some of which he set himself, some of which were set by von Dittersdorf. Rather as von Dittersdorf famously composed a series of sinfonias on stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, so Pichl composed a series of sinfonias which take their names from the Nine Muses. There is, though – a striking difference; Dittersdorf’s sinfonias have more or less evident programmes, their connections with their mythological titles are not hard to spot; Pichl’s ‘Muse’ sinfonias, on the other hand, have far less obvious connections with their purported subjects/dedicatees; only with some hesitancy and some guesswork can one suggest why a particular sinfonia is associated with a particular muse. But the music itself is generally impressive and interesting and doesn’t depend upon such extra-musical associations, real or invented.

Of his ‘Muse’ symphonies, seven survive – those dedicated to Euterpe, Urania, Clio, Melpomene, Calliope and Thalia. Those dedicated to Terpsichore and Erato seem now to be lost. Three are recorded on the present CD, along with a sinfonia in honour of Diana, Virgin-huntress and goddess of chastity.

As implied above, these compositions are not heavily characterised or lavishly pictorial in relation to their ostensible subjects. It is presumably not an accident that Calliope, Muse of Epic, is ‘represented’ in the most heavily orchestrated of these sinfonia, with a certain musical grandeur befitting her status (she was, after all, the mother of Orpheus). But beyond this – unless there are some very deeply coded signals going undetected – the compositions would seem largely interchangeable. It is not, then, for what they say about their titular figures that these pieces are likely to be valued, but for the subtle way, for example, in which the counterpoint of the andante in ‘Clio’ is worked out or the lively quasi-dramatic quality of the allegro (very definitely ‘con brio’) which opens ‘Melpomene’ or, indeed, for the melting andante arioso of the ‘Diana’ sinfonia.

In a number of other recordings for Naxos, Kevin Mallon and the Toronto Chamber Orchestra have already demonstrated just how secure both their technical control and their stylistic understanding are in the music of this classical period. They will only enhance their reputation still further with this fine recording. 

Allan Badley’s well-informed booklet notes (from which I have learned a good deal) tell us that when Pichl produced a list of his compositions for a reference book (Jan Bohumír Dlabač’s Lexicon of Bohemian Artists) in 1802, it contained some 900 works and observes that “the majority … are still extant but largely unexplored”. I sincerely hope that that exploration will be undertaken and that at least some of the results will be recorded, in performances as good as these.

A familiarity with Pichl’s music is not likely to compel any drastic redrawings of the historical maps of the music of the Eighteenth Century – though a few significant details will certainly become clearer. The Haydns certainly knew some of Pichl’s music and so, one suspects, did Mozart. But leaving aside historical questions this is, quite simply, delightful, intelligent, well-made music which will surely give much pleasure to anyone with a taste for the classical symphony.

Glyn Pursglove










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