German composer, organist and music theorist, Justin Heinrich Knecht was a teacher, church musician and man of the theatre. All of these qualities can be heard in his magnificent Le Portrait musical de la Nature – Grande Symphonie
, written in 1785. A work which was much admired and anticipates the structure of Beethoven’s beloved Pastoral Symphony
(written 24 years later),
this focuses on nature. This ranges from microscopic petals and the flutter of the tiniest feathers to the most menacing storms.
The Knecht begins with the sun shining in a pastoral setting: a waterfall tumbles from the mountain-top, a shepherd pipes and sheep gambol. The closing section of the first movement is crisp and clearly punctuated having earlier evoked wondering zephyrs. We then move to a slower, willowy second movement. The third movement offers a more dynamic torrent of life. Black clouds enter and a storm rages. At this point the double bass section of the orchestra Filarmonica di Torino
sound particularly accomplished. As the clouds disperse, trilling violins evoke twittering birds. The gentle swathes of the woodwind (particularly the flautists) and a light-hearted violin solo remind us of the opening movement. In the fifth and final movement, pleasant songs rejoice in the passing of the storm and evoke glimmers of light as seen dappled through the trees. Resounding in a jubilant chorus and hymn of thanksgiving, the symphony ends in resounding bliss and grace.
The second half of this CD transports us from Germany to France, as we are graced by François-André Danican Philidor’s overtures. As a boy Philidor was a chorister in the Chapelle Royale at Versailles where he was taught by Campra, the maître de chapelle. When his voice broke, he left the chapel to earn a living by teaching and serving as a copyist. A keen chess player who enjoyed competing with Voltaire and Rousseau — he earned a living by teaching chess when in the Netherlands — Philidor’s return to music was prompted by Diderot. This was signposted by his return from England to France in 1754 where he was then encouraged by Rameau who suggested that he compose for theatre. On this CD we celebrate Philidor’s majestic zeal for depicting character with humanism and humour. There is also a strong storytelling element to be heard in these overtures.
Spliced between two Allegros, the second movement of Philidor’s overture to Le Jardinier et Son Seigneur
, played in the tonic minor key, is particularly arresting and is played most passionately by the string section of the Prague Sinfonia Orchestra,
conducted by Christian Benda. Le Sorcier
has a story about a soldier (Julien) who has to part from his love (Agathe) and returns as a sorcerer in order to deceive her mother (who wants to marry Agathe off to another man) and win Agathe’s love. This is played in a fittingly sprightly and pithy style.
Never over-sentimentalised, Benda retains the style of Fielding’s novel Tom Jones
when conducting Philidor’s overture to his opera by the same name. In the repeated sections, the secrecy and love between Tom and Sophia, and the villainy of Blifil are all reflected. Ultimately, the narrator’s voice can be found in this overture, ending with a musical assertion which seems to be lifted directly from Book XVIII of Fielding’s novel: ‘Whatever in the nature of Jones had a tendency to vice, has been corrected by continual conversation with this good man, and by his union with the lovely and virtuous Sophia. He hath also, by reflection on his past follies, acquired a discretion and prudence very uncommon in one of his lively parts.’
Finishing with the overture to Le Marechal-Ferrant
(The Blacksmith), which is a comic opera based on an episode from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron
, the Prague Sinfonia
sound ever energised and alive with complementary textures. Preluding a village farce that involves two young couples, a sleeping potion and mistaken identities, the overture is suitably intriguing. It is split into three movements: a form suggestive of an Italian sinfonia whilst French folkloric elements characteristic of the vaudevilles can also be discerned. The eighteenth century French dramatist Charles Simon Favart praised this aspect of Philidor’s composition, saying: ‘Our musical savants claim that Philidor has stolen from Italians. What does it matter, if he enriches our nation with the beautiful things of foreign lands which we should perhaps never have known without him?’
In its combination of German and French compositions from the mid-eighteenth century, this CD would delight any listener. Knecht’s skill in depicting a pastoral vision and Philidor’s uncanny gift for conveying gesture and anticipation are memorable. With such a high quality recording and two renowned orchestras, these two worlds come alive, imbued with esprit and resilience.
Previous review: Rob Barnett