Carl STAMITZ (1745-1801)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in G [20:50]
Sinfonia concertante in D for violin, viola and orchestra [18:12]
Cello Concerto No. 2 in A [22:17]
Zoltan Ròcz (cello); Ulrich Grehling (violin); Ulrich Koch (viola)
Cappella Coloniensis/Gunter Wich (cello concertos), Marcel Couraud
rec. 8 April 1975 (No. 1), 1 August 1958 (Sinfonia), 6 June 1970
(No. 2), Oetkerhalle, Bielefeld, Germany
PHOENIX EDITION PE 194 [62:15]
Carl Stamitz, a relatively obscure contemporary of Mozart and Haydn who worked at the court of Mannheim, wrote three wonderful cello concertos. We are now fortunate to have multiple recordings of the first two. The full trio are available on an old Naxos album with cellist Christian Benda and the Prague Chamber Orchestra. Now here are the first two, along with a sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, in period-style performances! In this day and age even admirers of the least-known of classical-era music can be spoiled for choice.
Before comparing the two rival recordings, I must recommend in the strongest terms that readers who enjoy music of the 18th century, or good cello playing, pick up at least one copy of the Stamitz concertos. These are excellently crafted works with good tunes, beautifully singing solo lines, and genial charm; it’s impossible not to love them, and I hope some day to hear one or two of them live. Both of these albums do the works justice, but in contrasting ways.
In fact, the two discs are as different as night and day; the Christian Benda recording was all polished old-fashioned Mozartian grace, while this new release with Zoltan Ròcz and the Cappella Coloniensis has more of the bite that period tempos bring. The Cappella Coloniensis also adds harpsichord accompaniment and has a more prominent woodwind presence than the string-heavy Prague Chamber Orchestra.
As for the cellists themselves: Benda’s playing is consistently beautiful, and he is at his best in the most lyrical passages of these works. I am thinking especially of the slow movement of the Cello Concerto No. 2, maybe my favorite movement of any cello concerto not by Dvorák. This movement is a seemingly never-ending melody of exquisite beauty, breathtaking and instantly unforgettable. And Benda unquestionably has an advantage here, with a slower overall tempo, more focused tone, and a sense of hushed reverence. Rocz’s period cello with gut strings does not permit the same perfumed elegance, but then, that is not really what these performances are about.
The Rocz performances are certainly more classicized and probably more ‘authentic’, and his technique in the more challenging passages of this music is impeccable. The Cappella Coloniensis itself is a spirited ensemble which gives the lie to the notion that period performance is a distinctly recent phenomenon. It was founded in 1954, and according to the booklet was ‘the first orchestra in the world to perform according to this understanding of historical performance practice.’ The recordings of the two cello concertos date from 1970 and 1975, and, indeed, the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola is recorded in mono!
This last work, a charming double concerto in which violin and viola take equal parts, is currently unavailable elsewhere, and I urge you to listen on the assurance that the mono sound is not so bad at all. This disc is a very welcome addition to the short list of CDs devoted to Carl Stamitz, and would make a fine introduction for the fan of 18th century concertos who has yet to hear the masterly cello concertos. Afterwards, head over to Naxos for the third concerto (and slightly finer performances of the first two) and a superb disc of ‘orchestral quartets.’ Supraphon also has a CD of the viola concertos featuring soloist Jan Peruška. You will probably find, as I have, that your first listen to the lovely music of Carl Stamitz will be the beginning of a beautiful musical journey.
One caveat about this release: the Phoenix Edition booklet notes are rather sparse, failing to provide any biographical information about the soloists, even though there is a whole page devoted to listing the achievements of the photographer who took the (excellent) cover picture. Worse still, what notes there are about the music are completely useless. One-third of the booklet is dedicated to describing the morbid obesity of various noblemen who employed Stamitz throughout his career. The rest of the notes are devoted to disparaging Stamitz, calling his music ‘all-too-accommodating’, ‘somewhat unctuous’ and a display of ‘pleasing competence but little genius’. Even though it is true that Stamitz was no Mozart, these comments strike me as completely unfair, and totally out of place in a CD’s booklet note. If Phoenix Edition is considering releasing more recordings of Stamitz’s music, perhaps they will find somebody who actually enjoys his music to write the booklets. I will do it if nobody else can.
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