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William BOYCE (1711-1779)
Eight Symphonies Op.2 (1760) [60.57]
Aradia Ensemble/Kevin Mallon
Recorded at Grace Church on the Hill, Toronto, June 2003
NAXOS 8.557278 [60.57]


These gloriously tuneful and eventful symphonies, derived mainly from Boyce’s overtures for his odes and serentas, have never lacked for adherents on disc. Even so there have been times when choice has been severely confined so a new entrant is more than welcome. Mallon and his Aradia Ensemble have been producing fine work for Naxos and they were a reliable bet for this repertoire, especially since their baroque recordings have been refreshing and attractively accomplished.

One won’t be disappointed overall. The balance between harpsichord and strings, for example, is just and the bass line pointing in the slow movement of the B flat major [No.1 to distinguish it from No.7 in the same key] is well nuanced and weighted. The Allegro assai of the A major is well shaped, with strings that are pert and good entry points. Then, too, the pomposo gait of the Vivace of the Third is well characterised and there’s graciousness in the same symphony’s Minuet finale (if arguably just a shade too much). The brass is on good form for the splendid middle movement of the Fourth and the horn harmonies of its finale are finely chiselled. The trumpets flare in the Fifth, with antiphonal voices to the fore, and things are kept flowing in the Largo introduction to the Sixth with its stately Larghetto well deployed.

All this is fine; the winds are as adept as the brass and one can hear this in the First Symphony in particular. They phrase and shape with great nuance and feel for the Handelian lines. But turn to the 1992 AAM/Hogwood (now on Decca in their British Music series) and to the English Concert/Pinnock (Archiv 1990) and I think you will hear how much more immediate the earlier recordings are. Partly this is to do with sound. The church acoustic of Grace Church on the Hill in Toronto does blunt the attacks and gives a rather distant and diffuse quality to the recording. It obscures wind lines on occasion as well. But as much as this one can hear there’s more sheer zest in the other recordings - a more earthy immediacy. Hogwood makes Boyce sound bigger and manlier in the First, and for all their skill the Fourth sounds earthbound and more amorphous in the Naxos than it ever did with Hogwood and Pinnock. The AAM strings are more lithe in the Fifth. But there are certainly interesting points of departure. Mallon is far brisker than Hogwood in the Vivace second movement of the Second Symphony and imparts a different mood to the music - just as valid as his competitors. Then again I do prefer the greater sense of sprightliness and incision Hogwood brings to the Sprituoso section of the Seventh. On balance, and throughout, I have to say I prefer Hogwood.

He would be my first choice, irrespective of price considerations, though perhaps this antediluvian can put in a mournful plea for a resurrection of the old cycle recorded by Jörg Faerber and his Württemberg forces - such gusto and brio. Maybe it won’t win any prizes for its historically informed manners but let’s not be precious about that. But Hogwood is still the front-runner.

Jonathan Woolf

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