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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Baroque Bohemia and Beyond: Volumes 1-3
Volume 1
Jiří Antonín BENDA (1722-1795)

Sinfonia No. 4 in F (post-1750) [6:04]
Josef BÁRTA (1744-1787)
Sinfonia in C minor [13:21]
František Xaver RICHTER (1709-1789)
Concerto in E-minor pro Cembalo (Harpsichord) [23:18]
Jan Václav STAMIC (1714-1757)
Sinfonia Pastorale D major Op. 4/2 (published c.1758-59) [11:39]
Jan Křitetel VAŇHAL (1739-1813)
Sinfonia in E minor (c.1765-1770) [23:32]
Czech Chamber Philharmonic (Zdenĕk Adam, artistic director)/Vojtĕch Spurný
rec. Studio Arco Diva Domovina, Prague May, June and October 2005
ALTO ALC 1001 [78:00]
Volume 2
Jan Křitetel VAŇHAL (1739-1813)

Symphony in G minor (pre-1785) [20:14]
František Xaver DUŠEK (1731-1799)
Symphony in C major (c.1767) [12:34]
František Xaver BRIXI (1732-1771)
Concerto in G major for harpsichord [14:11]
Antonín VRANICKÝ (1761-1820)
Symphony in C minor (post 1790) [23:16]
Czech Chamber Philharmonic (Zdenĕk Adam, artistic director)/Vojtĕch Spurný
rec. Studio Arco Diva Domovina, Prague, June 2004
ALTO ALC 1002 [70:34] 
Volume 3
Jiři Ignác LINEK (1725-1791)

Sinfonia Pastoralis C Major [15:16]
Leopold KOŽELUH (1747-1818)
Symphony in G minor (1787) [17:59]
František Xaver BRIXI (1732-1771)
Symphony in D major (1760) [8:35]
Antonín REJCHA (1770-1836)
Symphony in E flat major Op. 41 (1800) [22:56]
Czech Chamber Philharmonic (Zdenĕk Adam, artistic director)/Vojtĕch Spurný
rec. Domovina Studios, Prague, November 2002 and February 2003
ALTO ALC 1003 [65:13]

The range of the Bohemian – and to a lesser extent Moravian – musical diaspora can be very adequately gauged from the composers in this three disc survey. Some underwent name-changing, Germanicising being the most opportune thing to do if seeking preferment in a ducal court, not least as regards pronunciation. In the first volume therefore we find Jiří Antonín Benda becoming Georg Anton and Jan Křitetel Vaňhal turning into Johann Baptist Vanhal, even Wanhal. And so on.

Benda served successively in Potsdam and Gotha and his Sinfonia dates from his days as Kapellmeister to Duke Friedrich III of Saxe-Gotha. The forces were relatively modest – ten strings, four winds and harpsichord – and the writing robust, elegant and broadly conventional. Josef Bárta was born in Prague and was active in Vienna in the 1770s. His own Sinfonia is a good example of Sturm und Drang in compressed form. Vivacious and rather gripping it makes a more intense impression than Benda’s opus, though admittedly it’s written on a broader canvas.

F. X. Richter, the senior composer in this volume contributes a keyboard – here harpsichord – concerto. If he’s known for any of his concertos it’s that for the trumpet, though he’s probably even better known for Mozart’s naughty comments on Richter’s outrageous consumption of alcohol. The keyboard work has a too-long first movement and a certain garrulous professionalism. Its slow movement, a so-called Pastorale Cantabile, sounds rather stiff backed for such a sympathetic instruction.

Stamic studied in Prague but is best known for his time in Mannheim. He picks up the pastoral theme in writing a Sinfonia Pastorale, published shortly after his premature death in 1757. This is an impressive work, around eleven minutes in length and cast in four movements. Well sprung and lively we find Stamic writing discreetly and imaginatively for horns; the Czech Chamber Philharmonic under Vojtĕch Spurný does well by the swells and dynamic contrasts in the music. Vaňhal’s Sinfonia is fluent and well laid out but rather derivative. The pomposo gait of the Minuet is probably its high point. I’m not sure but I suspect that this is the Symphony that should properly be classified Bryan Em1 and conjecturally dated to c.1770. The notes have it as c.1765.

The second volume brings us more Vaňhal, his Symphony in G minor. This is a defter, more energetic and more engaging work than the one in the first volume. Solo winds have their say in the slow movement and the compositional level here is high. František Xaver Dušek was, like Vaňhal, another Bohemian who moved in Mozartian circles. Mozart played one of Vaňhal’s violin concertos and Dušek famously entertained Mozart when the younger man visited Prague for performances of Don Giovanni. Active both in Prague and Vienna Dušek turns in a Symphony of gallant confidence. The trio has a certain studied charm but a real sense of orchestral control and surety.

František Xaver Brixi was a contemporary of Dušek, and related to Jiří Antonín Benda. Prague-born he eventually became Kapellmeister of the city’s St Vitus Cathedral (remember that the next time you visit). He died, like Mozart, very young and composed in the main church music. His Concerto for harpsichord is a work I greatly prefer to that by the better known Richter. It’s more modest, has a stately quality that is most impressive, and has a lightness of touch that compels admiration. He also experiments with pizzicato supporting figures in the slow movement and the restrained rhetoric of his writing does him real credit. It can be played on harpsichord or organ. A real, modest, unassuming but enjoyable find.

Vranický was Moravian, born near Brno. In Vienna, where he studied with Mozart and Haydn he was known as Wranicky. He became a prestigious employee of Prince Lobkowitz in Vienna and held an honoured place in music making in the city. His Symphony, written after his engagement as Lobkowitz’s Kapellmeister, is a rugged and Haydnesque affair. Opening with portentous percussion it begins a stern allegro journey. Whereas, in contrast, the Romance is spacious, rather grand and confidently unromantic. His minuet is burnished by pert inner part writing and once again a rather stately Viennese patina.

Jiři Ignác Linek opens the final volume with his Sinfonia Pastoralis. Born in Bakov near Prague he succeeded his father as choirmaster in his hometown. Though he followed the trajectory of most Bohemians of studies in Prague he doesn’t seem to have travelled much and certainly didn’t take appointments in estates beyond Bohemia. Probably intended for Christmas his symphony is enjoyable and well characterised, and short. The drone effects in the Adagio hint at the kind of folkloric tints that his more cosmopolitan Bohemian and Moravian contemporaries don’t pursue in their own symphonies and they’re all the more effective for it.

Leopold Kozeluh is a known quantity these days with his piano concertos and other works taking their place on disc and in some concert halls. His 1787 Symphony in G minor, which predated Mozart’s own by a year, is a concise three-movement affair. It is in fact as Mozartian as Vranický’s was Haydnesque. The clever partition of wind lines in the slow movement is a stand out feature, as is the well-upholstered bass line pointing, and the layering of winds over the string cantilena. His finale is peppered with confident Mannheim crescendos.

František Xaver Brixi returns with his C major Symphony of 1760. It bridges the period post-baroque and pre-classical with a beguiling eloquence. Buoyant, yes, but with a vocalised, almost operatic freedom and lyricism in the slow movement. Finally we have the E flat major Symphony of Antonín Rejcha (or later Antoine Reicha), and one of the last of these works to be written, in 1800. After his meetings with his contemporary Beethoven in Bonn he studied in Vienna but eventually gravitated to Paris. His list of pupils is long and prestigious and starts with Berlioz, Gounod, Liszt and Franck and moves on from there. His Symphony seems to owe most to Haydn though there are also intimations of his friendship with Beethoven. He writes athletically for flutes, and warmly for strings. His deft fugal passage in the slow movement is unusual enough to provoke comment. It was absolutely no surprise for me to learn, from another source, that his fugal mastery made a huge impression on the writing of both Berlioz and Liszt. One can gauge his total command of fugal procedure from even so small an example as the one in his Symphony. His Allegro is also gently witty.

This survey, while hardly claiming to be comprehensive, offers unusual conjunctions and perspectives on Bohemian (and Moravian) composers in the eighteenth century. The Czech Chamber Philharmonic, known as the Český komorní orchestr in its native land, is a modern instrument group founded by Vaclav Talich in 1945, and plays with clarity, warmth and a clear immersion in the stylistic niceties of the time. The Domovina studios were used for all the recordings – the recordings sound natural and bright. The notes are cogent and attractive. All three discs are available separately and lovers of the Bohemian and Moravian baroque will be pleased to make their acquaintance.

Jonathan Woolf

 

 



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