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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger



Johann Baptist VAŇHAL (1739-1813)
Symphony in D major, Bryan D2 (c. 1765) [13:34]
Symphony in C minor, Bryan c2 (c. 1770) [16:24]
Symphony in A flat major, Bryan Ab1 (c. 1773) [17:53]
Symphony in G major, Bryan G6 (c. 1773) [21:28]
Toronto Camerata/Kevin Mallon
Recorded Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto, Canada, January 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557483 [69:19]

 



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A contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, Johann Baptist Vaňhal was born in the Bohemian village of Nechanicz where he received a wealth of musical instruction. Upon moving to Vienna in 1760, he became one of the most popular composers in Europe, writing about 20 symphonies, 6 flute quartets, and two substantial sacred choral works. However, as with most of the composers of the Classical era, Vaňhal became quite obscure after his death.

Naxos is certainly doing its part to lift Vaňhal's music into the mainstream. In addition to the Symphonies cycle (of which this is volume 3), the company has released a disc of his sacred choral music. These recordings reveal an expert and highly imaginative composer whose symphonies compare well to the early efforts of Mozart and Haydn. Vaňhal's melodies are very attractive and sometimes memorable, Viennese charm is prevalent in the slow movements, and the outer movements are exuberant and robust.

Each of the four programmed symphonies is in four movements sequenced as follows: Allegro - Andante or Adagio - Menuetto - Allegro. The Symphony in D major is one of Vaňhal's earliest orchestral works. The opening Allegro is rather short at just over two minutes, but makes amends through its hard-driving rhythms that are quite exciting. The Andante oozes with lilting elegance, the Menuetto is a delightful and regal affair, and the concluding Allegro is in perpetual-motion and permeated with a moderate degree of angst. The other symphonies on the disc largely adhere to the description of the Symphony in D major except that the movements are longer, thematic development more pronounced, and first movements exhibit an enticing mix of charm and excitement rather than only the latter.

I consider the Symphony in G major particularly rewarding. The 1st Movement finds the composer at his highest level of inspiration. The initial theme is elegant to the core and offered by Vaňhal in six complete statements; further, each statement highlights his most powerful and tension-laden utterances. The 2nd Movement Andante, similar to the Symphony in D major, possesses a lilting poetry that is thoroughly compelling and upbeat with an attractive solo flute part that doubles the first violin melody. In the 3d Movement, we have a Menuetto I and II; the first is joyous and well contrasts with the second that introduces some doubt and anxiety. From the vivacious opening theme to the drama/desperation conveyed in the development section as it moves through three different minor keys, the 4th Movement is riveting throughout. This is an exceptional symphony for its time period and not to be missed.

Adding to the enjoyment of the disc is the crisp and idiomatic playing of the Toronto Camerata with principal artists from the Toronto Symphony, the Canadian Opera Orchestra, the Canadian Ballet Orchestra, and the period instrument band Tafelmusik. This chamber orchestra is under contract to Naxos for the next few years and has already recorded the music of Saint-Georges and C.P.E. Bach in addition to the Vaňhal disc. Although using modern instruments, the group's playing is historically informed, lean and fully displays Vaňhal's penchant for lilting Viennese charm and exciting Allegro movements. I can't imagine better performances of Vaňhal's music and look forward to their future recordings. The soundstage is also excellent, highlighting the sharply etched and assertive interpretations.

In conclusion, this new Vaňhal disc is strongly recommended for all those with a warm spot for the orchestral music of the Classical era. Vaňhal's music is immediately appealing and retains it luster after repeated listenings. Once again, Naxos proves that there are treasures well beyond the beaten path. There is another fine disc of Vaňhal symphonies on the Chandos label, but the Naxos super-budget price tag can't be beat.

Don Satz

 

 



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