Times of change are often exciting. That was the case in the early decades of the 17th century which saw the birth of opera, of a monodic style in vocal music and of instrumental virtuosity. The same goes for the change from the baroque style to classicism. Its roots can be found in the 1730s when a new genre emerged: the symphony. The word 'emerge' is not quite correct, though: instrumental works with the title sinfonia were already being written a century before, but those pieces were very different from what we today call a symphony. It all goes to show that the meaning of a word is relative. Even in the 18th century a piece with the name of sinfonia did not have a fixed form. It was in the latter decades of the century that the symphony took the form it would hold until well into the 20th century.
The roots of the 'modern' symphony are to be found in Italian opera. Such a piece was usually preceded by an instrumental work in various movements, usually fast - slow - fast. This operated as a curtain-raiser and drew the audience's attention to what was to come. The same happened in performances of oratorios - a form not that different from opera. That is certainly the case with most of Handel's oratorios. The present disc opens with the sinfonia from Handel's oratorio Saul. It is in four movements: after the usual three we hear a short andante larghetto. The solo part for the oboe in the third movement is notable. Such overtures mostly have clear dramatic traits; that is also the case here … but in a performance that doesn't really come off.
The other works on the programme are more or less what we today expect from a symphony. In his liner-notes Stephen Rose states that between 1740 and 1800 over 10,000 symphonies were composed. One then wonders why orchestras mostly play the same stuff. In recent years more attention has been given to music written between the baroque era and the classical period and to composers who for a long time have remained in the shadow of the great classical masters Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Even so, such composers seldom appear on concert programmes and their music is not that often recorded. That makes a recording like this a valuable addition to the catalogue. Two works from the early symphonic repertoire have been included, by two composers who played a crucial role in the development of the genre and - more generally - a new aesthetic ideal in orchestral music. Both also worked for a period in Mannheim.
The orchestra in Mannheim was considered one of the best in Europe in the mid-18th century. Its style included the use of quick dynamic changes, the crescendo and the diminuendo. A vast rising figure with crescendo was nicknamed the 'Mannheim rocket'. Various features of the 'Mannheim style' turned up in compositions from the third quarter of the 18th century, even by composers who never worked in Mannheim.
Johann Stamitz was especially responsible for the development of the court orchestra into a coherent and brilliant ensemble. It is interesting to note that the famous journalist Charles Burney recognized that Stamitz in his own compositions developed the Italian opera overture. He also mentions that he was "stimulated by the productions of Jomelli". This Italian composer is today mostly recognized as the real 'father' of the new style which broke away from the aesthetic ideals of the baroque period.
Burney characterised Stamitz's style thus: "He, like another Shakespeare, broke through all difficulties and discouragements; and, as the eye of one pervaded all nature, the other, without quitting nature, pushed art further than any one had done before him; his genius was truly original, bold, and nervous; invention, fire, and contrast, in the quick movements; a tender, graceful, and insinuating melody, in the slow; together with the ingenuity and richness of the accompaniments, characterise his productions; all replete with great effects, produced by an enthusiasm of genius, refined, but not repressed by cultivation." If one listens to the performance of the Sinfonia a 4 in D one recognizes some of these elements, but only in a rather limited way. The true qualities of Stamitz's orchestral music are not fully exposed here. I certainly wouldn't call the fast movements "bold", and there's little "fire" in the playing. The performance by the Academy of Ancient Music is rather tame, especially if one compares it with recordings of this kind of repertoire by, for instance, the New Dutch Academy. The Grande simphonie No. 7 in C by Franz Xaver Richter, probably written before his time in Mannheim, fares no better.
One of the composers who was influenced by the Mannheim school was Mozart. He also admired the oeuvre of Johann Christian Bach whom he met when he performed in London, together with his father and sister. Here he composed what is considered his first symphony (KV 16). At that time he was just eight years old, but this piece already shows his theatrical instincts right from the start. Again this performance only hints at that. It is not really theatrical and the contrasts have been smoothed down. It is nicely played - there's no doubting that - but that is not enough.
One could argue that in the oeuvre of Haydn one could find symphonies which are less well-known than number 49. It is one of the most frequently-played symphonies of the 18th century, and that has everything to do with its character. It opens with a very long adagio which is full of expression and which has led it to be nicknamed La passione. As so often that nickname wasn't the composer's idea. It links this work to the music for Holy Week, but whether Haydn was indeed inspired by Passiontide is impossible to say. However, the inclusion of this work in the programme makes sense as it clearly marks the shift in the character of the symphony from a curtain-raiser to a piece in which human emotions are expressed. Towards the latter decades of the century an increasing number of symphonies reflected this development, for instance those by Mozart. The performance of Haydn's 49th symphony is the best part of this disc, and the expression of the first movement is well conveyed. In the following movements the tension sometimes waned a little, but on the whole I enjoyed this performance.
On balance this disc leaves a mixed impression. The idea behind the project is interesting and important; every recording which sheds light on forgotten repertoire deserves a warm welcome. However, musically speaking this disc is not an unqualified success. Not every music-lover is convinced that music written in the mid-18th century is more than just a link between the baroque and classical periods and has a value of its own. This recording is not going to win them round, I'm afraid. There is more in this repertoire than is revealed here.
Johan van Veen
Masterwork Index: Haydn symphony 49 ~~ Mozart symphony 1