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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]

Franz Ignaz Beck was born into a musical family in Mannheim, where the nascent symphony of Johann Stamitz (Beck's teacher), Franz Xaver Richter and others was breezing away the last vestiges of the baroque. According to legend Beck fled Mannheim after fighting a duel in which he believed he had killed his rival - only much later did he learn that it had been a hoax. He ended up in Venice where he studied with Baldassare Galuppi, eloping to Naples with his employer's daughter a few years later. By the end of the 1750s he was in Marseilles and he remained in France for the rest of his life, becoming conductor of the Grand Théâtre of Bordeaux, organist of St. Seurin of the same city in 1774 and correspondent of musical composition for the Institute of France in 1803.

Beck's first set of symphonies was published in Paris in 1758; three others quickly followed. His interest in the symphony then ceased; later works include stage pieces, a much-praised Stabat Mater first performed at Versailles (1783) and revolutionary music such as the "Hymne à l'être supreme". It is not known whether the op. 1 symphonies were written in Mannheim, Italy or France, but their use of strings only, with continuo, ignoring the fuller orchestral effects being developed in Mannheim, suggests Italy even though the style does not. The Concise Grove tells us that Beck's symphonies show such progressive traits as independent wind parts and four movements, so it sounds as if the other three sets must be somewhat different.

These symphonies belong to that nether world between the demise of the baroque and the beginning of the great Austrian-German symphonic flowering - although Haydn was two years older than Beck his career as a symphonist was just about to begin when Beck published his first set. They certainly do not sound at all baroque, but nor do they contain particular premonitions of Haydn and Mozart. Their style might be described as galante with dramatic incursions - Beck had a liking for sudden tremolo eruptions. His themes are short-breathed but with enough unexpected turns to avoid banality. His first movements manage to present a surprisingly wide range of material in an extremely well-organized manner. I thought the sprightly, syncopated first movement of no. 2 particularly fetching. An initial impression that the slow movements were blander was dispelled by those of nos. 4 and 5 which are rather striking. The brief finales (the longest lasts 2 minutes 38 seconds) are just spirited pay-offs, but overall the set is sufficiently rewarding to suggest that further exploration of Beck may be in order. Apart from the other sets of symphonies it would be interesting to hear the lauded Stabat Mater.

Praise is certainly due to the excellent New Zealand Chamber Orchestra and its conductor Donald Armstrong who, not content with generalized sightreading-plus, has evidently worked hard over dynamic shading. A fine recording and useful notes by Allan Badley (on which I have drawn considerably) complete a commendable issue.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Patrick Waller



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