Besides presenting a well-played selection of pleasing,
unfamiliar music, this program offers an overview of the symphony
in transition. Karsten Erik Ose's booklet note, as translated
by Uwe Lukas Jäger, refers to these four composers as "Mozart's
most famous coevals," but their diverse, more conservative
styles exemplify various points in the form's gradual metamorphosis
from the single contained instrumental movement of the Baroque
to the multi-movement structure perfected by Mozart and Haydn.
Antoine Mahaut's C minor symphony for strings doesn't really escape the Baroque at all, adhering to the fast-slow-fast form of the sonata da chiesa. Fugal writing dominates both the outer movements, while the central Adagio, sturdy and tonally weighted as it is, is recognizable as a sort of siciliana - though I'd hardly describe it as "wallowing," as the annotators do!
François-Joseph Gossec's B flat symphony, also for string orchestra, sits on the cusp of the transition, incorporating both forward- and backward-looking elements into its five movements. The vigorous tremolos that drive the opening Allegro molto point the way to what we think of as Mozart's "operatic" symphonic style, though these gestures make quite a different effect in Gossec's solid C major. A Larghetto poco lento alternates pizzicatos with stark octaves before settling into a flowing cantabile. A brief Largo con sordini serves to preface the fourth movement, a fully-fledged fugue in the Handelian manner, capped with two ambivalent half-cadences; the finale, an extended series of contrasting minuets, restores the work's Classical veneer.
The scores by Johann Baptist Vanhal and Joseph Martin Kraus, however, are the genuine article. Vanhal's symphony is laid out in four movements to Kraus's three, but both are rooted firmly in the Classical style. Both composers add horns and oboes to the string orchestra, with Kraus eliciting unusually full-throated chording from them. And both scores betray the influence of the period's two great models: Haydn, in the prominent solo violin in Vanhal's Andante; Mozart, in Kraus's weighty Larghetto introduction and agitated, tensile outer movements. On the other hand, the appealing, listenable themes don't approach Haydn's memorable infectiousness or Mozart's ambivalent emotional layering, though I like the way Vanhal's finale maintains an aristocratic demeanour amid its anxious drama.
The Capella Coloniensis, a period-instrument ensemble, plays with spirit, alert rhythm, and solid tone under Hans-Martin Linde. The horns can be indiscreet in the Vanhal - their role is supporting, after all - but the strings deliver the runs in Mahaut's finale with real zest. The recording places the players in a pleasing ambience that doesn't compromise detail. The booklet note is informative but, given the program's historical interest, might well have included dates of composition.
Stephen Francis Vasta