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E.T.A. HOFFMANN (1776-1822)
Symphony in E-flat major (1806) [21:35]
Overture: Undine (1814) [8:25]
Overture: Aurora (1812) [8:53]
Friedrich WITT (1770-1836)
Symphony in A major (1790) [22:21]
Kölner Akademie/Michael Alexander Willens
rec. Deutschlandfunk, Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, Germany, 8-11 January 2014
CPO 777 208-2 [61:39]

The author, composer, critic and artist Ernst Theodor (Wilhelm) Amadeus Hoffmann was born in Königsberg, Germany on 24 January 1776. The name ‘Amadeus’ was added in later life in honour of Mozart. He was destined for a career in the law but, after taking music lessons, decided to become a full time musician. Hoffmann held the position of conductor in a variety of music theatres.

His musical catalogue is wide-ranging and includes many operas, a ballet, the present symphony, some chamber works, religious music and piano sonatas. At present, Hoffmann is largely remembered for his literary achievements which combine humour and fantasy. The character Johannes Kreisler, the Kapellmeister appeared in his novel The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper: it was the inspiration for Robert Schumann’s piano masterpiece Kreisleriana. The libretto of Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffmann was derived from his stories as were the scenarios for the ballets Coppélia and The Nutcracker.

Hoffmann’s musical aesthetic is less romantic than classical. Haydn and to some extent Mozart are exemplars, although it is also possible to hear a reflection of the evolution from classical to romantic music apparent in Hummel and early Beethoven.

The Symphony in E flat major by Hoffmann was composed during 1806 and was premiered in Warsaw on 3 August of that year. It is Haydn’s series of the ‘London’ symphonies that is the formal model. The first movement is the most thoughtful part of this symphony with some intricate working out of themes. The slow movement is finely poised and quite beautiful in its exposition of the musical material. It reflects a pastoral disposition with something a little more troubled for the middle section. The minuet and trio is typically light-hearted in spite of being in a minor key. It is almost Puck-like in its progress, although the clod-hopping of Bottom and his crew is also apparent in the vivid contrasts between phrases. The lively finale is a pleasure to hear. Interestingly, the composer makes use of a theme from the symphony’s opening movement, making it into a ‘cyclic’ work.

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Aurora and Undine are regarded as being the first romantic operas in the German language. The former goes back to classical myth and deals with the love of a princess for a shepherd boy. The latter majors on the fairy tale by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (1777–1843) about the faithless love of a knight for the water nymph Undine. Both these overtures are attractive and satisfying, if not ground-breaking.

Friedrich Witt was born in Niederstetten, Württemberg, on 8 November 1770. He spent much of his life as a composer and violinist. He was also court musician at the House of Oettingen-Wallerstein. From 1802 he was Kapellmeister at Würzburg. Witt’s musical achievements include two operas, a number of oratorios, masses, 23 symphonies and chamber music. He died in Wurzburg on 3 January 1836. The work that is still associated with his name is the ‘Jena’ Symphony which was once attributed to Beethoven.

Friedrich Witt’s Symphony in A major was composed sometime around 1790. It is clear that this work adheres to the ‘symphonic conventions’ of the 18th century although as the liner-notes point out, the orchestra is smaller than that used by Haydn in his contemporaneous ‘London’ symphonies. The symphony is presented in four well-balanced movements. The first movement comes to life after a reflective introduction. The tunes just tumble over each other with some lovely moments for the French horns. The largely untroubled slow movement follows the short minuet and trio. The finale is sparkling and pure fun bringing the symphony to a gratifying conclusion. Hoffmann commenting on Witt’s later symphonies suggested that they were ‘written for a large audience and therefore sought to provide, not profundity, but only maximum graciousness.’ This comment applies equally to this early work. The sound-world lies between Haydn and Beethoven with nods towards Mozart.

As always with CPO the CD is beautifully produced in every way. The sound is clear and allows the listener to pick up every nuance of this significant music. The notes are by Werner Keil and are presented in German and in English. They are detailed and informative without being overly technical. The cover painting by Caspar David Friedrich matches the mood of the music.

One of the problems that I have found with CPO is that the liner-notes are not readily available apart from the ‘hard’ copy of the CD. Why can't they be put online like those for Naxos, Chandos and Hyperion? It is bizarre that the company assumes that people who buy their digital music from Amazon (for example) do not require this very important part of the musical package.

This CD of music by Hoffmann and Witt is stimulating, satisfying and enjoyable. It is fair to say that this is not revelatory music but it is well-wrought, often exciting and always enjoyable. It will be of great interest to all those listeners who specialise in exploring the lesser-known composers of the late classical and early romantic eras.

John France






 



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