The centrepiece of this rather short-measured disc is the 1783 Symphony of Justin Heinrich Knecht, known as Le Portrait musical de la Nature ou Grande Symphonie.
This is a Pastoral Symphony, often mentioned as a forerunner of Beethoven’s, but seldom performed let alone recorded: this is, in fact, the world premiere recording. Knecht was the (Protestant) Director of Music in Biberach and his work of 1783 was published two years later. We know that Beethoven knew Knecht’s music, because his organ tutor was found in Beethoven’s estate.
The title page of the work carries a long, indeed effusive description of the five movements. I hope therefore it’s just a slip, and doesn’t suggest Anglophones aren’t interested, that only the German text in the booklet carries translations of the French original, the frontispiece of which is also printed. Anglophones must be prepared to read both languages, though it’s no great linguistic hardship, given the nature depiction involved.
After all the build up, is this really the work that inspired Beethoven? Maybe as an idea, but surely not in terms of musical development. The methodology, and the stylistic influence, is more Mannheim than anything, which isn’t surprising when one appreciates that Knecht was born a few years before Mozart. His music is charming, pastel coloured, descriptive to a degree, conveying notions of the ‘sombre’ and ‘lowering’ as well as more radiant feelings. Crisp brass and percussion indicate turbulence and this happens with strategic intelligence in the central Allegro molto
. The movements, whilst distinct, segue into each other in this performance so a seamless air is conveyed. The whole work ends with a graciously unfolding series of variations. There is due proportion in the classicism, but of the bucolic, the festive, or the human, there is little sign. Unlike Beethoven’s own conception, Knecht’s is a landscape and, more importantly, skyscape uncontaminated by humanity. It is very much a study in tint and colour, an analogue in music of German landscape art.
The remainder of the disc is given over to orchestral and vocal music from his operas. When it came to titling his music, Knecht was not a lad for concision. His titles are the longest I’ve ever seen, much less typed. The soprano ariettas from Der Schulz im Dorfe oder Der verliebte Herr Doctor
are tuneful and brief. The last of the three is the most sassy and dramatic and the only one really to have potential life beyond its operatic confines. That’s to say it’s the only one that would truly survive extraction into an anthology. Then we have – wait for it, take a deep breath - Ouvertüre zum Prolog auf die Vermählungs-Feier der königlich-württembergischen Prinzessin Katharine mit ihren französisch-kaiserlichen Prinzen Jérôme
(1807). This festive five minute overture is proudly ceremonial, naturally, and confidently orchestrated, though an occasional piece only. In the same year, Knecht set his – off we go again - Bravour-Aria zur Musikalischen Szene auf des Königs Geburts- (oder auch Names-) fest gehörig,
a celebratory Name Day affair with a very Mozartian vocal line and nice wind fillips. After which he turned all cursory with the Ouvertüre aus ‘Die Aeolsharfe oder Der Triumph der Musik und Liebe’.
This was a romantic opera in four acts completed in 1808 and its overture more than hints at Seraglio
The performances are perfectly reasonable, and pretty well recorded, and were made over a period of years in Stuttgart. The Symphony came first in 1997, the Seraglio
-influenced overture live from a concert in 2008, and the remainder from the studios in 2011. This last event seems to have galvanised the collection of these disparate performances to form a releasable disc. It’s historically interesting to hear the ‘Pastoral’, though the effect of so doing may well be to stimulate you to wonder at the difference between a Sunday painter and, say, Turner.