Carl STAMITZ (1745-1801)
Viola Concerto no.1 in D (c.1774) [22:11]
Franz HOFFMEISTER (1754-1812)
Viola Concerto in D (1780s) [20:47]
Viola Concerto in B flat (1780s) [21:01]
Victoria Chiang (viola)
Baltimore Chamber Orchestra/Markand Thakar
rec. Goucher College, Towson, Maryland USA, 5-6, 18-19 May 2009. DDD
NAXOS 8.572162 [64:00]

The blurb for this CD says that Franz Hoffmeister "is better known as a publisher". Naxos, generally great champions of minor and neglected composers, have been slow to help bring Hoffmeister to public attention. Now, after waiting eight years to release a follow-up to a recording of his op.14 String Quartets in 2003 (see review), Naxos have issued two discs of this German-born Viennese composer's music in a little over six months. This latest follows a CD of 1980s recordings of his Double Bass Quartets (see review).

Hoffmeister was a prolific composer, and the two viola works here are among nearly fifty concertos for various instruments. Chamber works showcasing the viola were reasonably common in the Classical period. We think of Mozart or Michael Haydn's Duos (see review of recent release), or Alessandro Rolla's Sonatas, a recording of which by Jennifer Stumm was released by Naxos just a few months back (see review). Concertos were much rarer, with the mainly Mannheim-based Stamitz family being arguably the most important trailblazers.

The three works in this programme all date from the same period, give or take a decade, and are similar in length and structure. They open with a long, muscle-flexing allegro, followed by a medium-length slow movement, reflective in nature and then end with a bright, breezy four-minute rondo finale. Given also the self-imposed rules under which Classical composers were writing, it is hardly surprising that all three works resemble each other. Perhaps they are best appreciated heard separately, or at least with a tea break in between. There is no doubting, however, the craftsmanship that has gone into these Concertos and especially the writing for viola. It is given a relatively uncommon chance to shine as a bringer of melodic cheer, not tear, especially in the Hoffmeister works. Of these the first movement of the B flat Concerto, featuring a fine cadenza written by Suzanne Beia, and the Adagio of the D major work, are particularly memorable.

Nonetheless, Carl Stamitz was probably the greater composer of the two, and certainly the greater violist. Hoffmeister was more interested in publishing than performing. Stamitz's Concerto consequently outshines Hoffmeister's pair, being not only more virtuosic and more imaginatively scored, but also darker and even visceral at times.

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra perform on modern instruments, but with appropriate restraint and elegance. Their music director Markand Thakar guides them thoughtfully through the scores. Though not especially challenging for the ensemble, they nevertheless require just this kind of insightful reading to bring them to life.

Victoria Chiang's job is somewhat harder, with plenty of technical demands, especially double-stopping in the Stamitz, that have no chance, however, of catching her out. Her tone is attractively rich, her intonation splendid and her fingers nimble.

Sound quality is good, warm and well balanced, with only very faint traffic noise occasionally audible. The CD booklet is slim but informative, with an essay by Allan Badley, who edited both Hoffmeister concertos for performance. It seems that the manuscript copies have come down through the generations in less than tiptop condition. The one flaw in the production is a lazy editing join in the cadenza of the finale of the Stamitz.

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Hoffmeister the bringer of melodic cheer, not tear. Stamitz more virtuosic, imaginative, darker and even visceral.

See also review by Brian Reinhart