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Johann Baptist VANHAL (1739 - 1813)
Three Piano Quintets, op. 12
Sonata No. 1 in G [25:26]
Sonata No. 2 in d minor [15:09]
Sonata No. 3 in B flat [26:18]
Miklós Spányi (fortepiano)
Authentic Quartet (Zsolt Kalló, Balász Bozzai (violin); Gábor Rác (viola); Csilla Vályi (cello))
rec. 21-24 February 2008, Hungaroton Studio, Hungary. DDD
HUNGAROTON HCD 32588 [67:11]


Experience Classicsonline

Johann Baptist Vanhal was one of the many Bohemian-born musicians who in the second half of the 18th century spread all over Europe and played an important role in music as performers and as composers. Although he was quite famous in his time not that much is known about him. Too many things that have been written about Vanhal are based on rumours rather than firm evidence. There is no doubt, though, that he played an important role in Vienna. In particular his symphonies brought him fame, and there are reasons to believe that these were even more popular than those by Haydn and Mozart.
One thing we know little about are his skills as a performer. The only things which suggest he was highly skilled are the fact that in 1763 he was listed as first violinist in a performance of Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice. In 1784 he played in a quartet with Haydn, Mozart and Dittersdorf, probably as cellist. It is Dittersdorf who claimed he was his pupil, but there’s no firm evidence of that.
Vanhal was known first and foremost as a composer of symphonies and it is these works that keep his name alive today. A ground-breaking release was the disc with five symphonies which Concerto Köln recorded for Teldec in 1996. It revealed the excellent qualities of Vanhal's music. In fact he composed in almost any genre in vogue in his days: solo concertos, chamber music in various scorings, music for keyboard, divertimentos, secular songs, sacred music and programmatic pieces. Some of his string quartets have been recorded, but the three quintets performed here by Miklos Spányi and the Authentic Quartet are first recordings.
The term 'piano quintet' as used in the title of this disc is a bit misleading. The original French title is more accurate: Trio Sonates avec l'accompagnement des deux violons, viola et violoncelle (ad libitum). The first thing to note is that these are trios, meaning that not all strings have their own part. But they also lack an independent role: they merely play along with the keyboard, add some colour and fill in the harmonies. The addition ad libitum means that these 'trio sonatas' can also be played on the keyboard alone. These trios belong to a genre which was quite popular at the time. A composer like Johann Schobert, who was mainly active in Paris in the 1760s, wrote quite a number of trios and quartets for keyboard with instruments ad libitum.
The three trios are all in three movements, the first of which begins with a slow introduction. In each sonata the first movement is by far the longest taking more than half of the duration of the sonata. The adagio of Trio No. 2 takes less than 3 minutes as does the finale of the third Trio. Whereas the first and third Trios have a rather intimate character, the second has the traits of a keyboard concerto. In this piece the bass is more exposed than in the Trio No. 1 in which the right hand dominates and the bass is mostly reduced to a supporting role.
One of the features of these trios is the fact that the keyboard part has several passages of a cadenza-like character. Some of them are written out but Miklós Spányi also adds some of his own. In these passages the keyboard plays without the strings.
Vanhal's symphonies are often characterised as Sturm und Drang, and this description fits these trios as well. This is expressed in sudden dynamic outbursts, general pauses and unexpected diminuendi. The second movement of the Trio No. 1, which is indicated as 'adagio sempre piano' is remarkable and has a very intimate character.
As the title of these trios refer to the harpsichord as keyboard instrument one may question the use of a fortepiano. Historicaly speaking this is perfectly legitimate: even when the fortepiano is not mentioned; this opus was printed at a time when the new fortepiano had already gained its place in music life. Less convincing is the choice of a copy of an instrument by Anton Walter. The date of the original is not given, but it probably dates from the 1790s, and considering the fast evolution of the fortepiano at the time an earlier instrument would have been preferable. There were also moments when I was curious to hear how a harpsichord would sound in these trios.
Miklós Spányi and the Authentic Quartet give good performances and I really liked what I heard in the Trios Nos 1 and 2. Only in the third was I a little disappointed as I felt that the performance was a bit uninvolved. In particular in the long first movement - 16 minutes - the artists were not always able to sustain the tension. Part of the problem is that the dynamics are too flat. And I also have to say that the Authentic Quartet is not one of the most brilliant ensembles in the business. Although its role is limited and basically of a supporting kind more could have been made of the string parts.
That said I am glad these three sonatas, or quintets if you like, have been recorded. They broaden the picture of Vanhal's oeuvre, and they make quite good listening.
Johan van Veen


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