Johann Baptist VANHAL (1739-1813)
String Quartet in C minor, Op.1 No.4, Weinmann 5a: c2 (1769) [15:35]
String Quartet in G major, Weinmann 5a: G8 (1780) [19:49]
String Quartet in A major, Op.33 No.2, Weinmann 5a: A4 (1785) [24:34]
String Quartet in E flat major, Weinmann 5a: ES11 (1786) [18:13]
Lotus Quartet
rec. 2009, Kammermusikstudio, SWR Stuttgart
CPO 777475-2 [78:34]

Even in an age of prolific composers Vanhal (or Vaňhal, Wanhal, Vanhall even Van Hal) stands tall. Scholar Paul Bryan reckons his compositions number some 1,377 works – which includes 100 or so string quartets and at least 76 symphonies. Then we move on to the masses, smaller sacred settings and so on and on. This would be a footnote in musical history were it not for the fact that many of his works have real substance, something Charles Burney noted in 1772 when he wrote that the Bohemian’s symphonies were ‘among the most complete and perfect compositions, from many instruments, that the art of music can boast’.

His misfortune, obviously, if crudely, can be summed up in one word: Haydn. Yet before the rise of Haydn and Mozart Vanhal’s symphonies and chamber works were amongst the most popular in German-speaking lands, and though Haydn was seven years older than Vanhal, the younger man contributed much, and earlier, to both genres.

The four string quartets selected for recording by the Lotus Quartet are particularly revealing examples of the progress made in the genre from the slightly uncertain ‘Quatuor concertant’ appellation originally given to the Op.1 No.4 to the more confident establishment of the String Quartet as an independent genre a mere few years later. That early quartet, in C minor, published in 1769 shows an already consolidated four-movement form. Sonata form is followed and opportunities for cantilena for the first violin in the slow movement afford lyric intensity – Sachiko Kobayashi bows here with refined weight – over broken pizzicati. Vanhal isn’t afraid of a long development section as the finale of this highly auspicious quartet illustrates.

The G major, dating from 1780 wasn’t published during his lifetime. Originally referred to as a Divertimento – another example of the tangled evolution of the quartet – it is fresh, well-structured and with a movement described as two Arias (and which sound anything but) though they are notable for the irregular phraseology. By the time of the last two quartets here, dating from the years 1785-86, we have moved into what one has to refer to as the Classical period of Vanhal’s output. He is an exceptionally communicative composer, with a real fluency when it comes to sonata form and the employment of minuets and trios. There are plenty of embellishments in the slow movement of the A major and a fine cadenza. The Rondo finale is sparkling – plenty of incidents and some virtuosic runs for the cello. The E flat major, released in instalments, is the only three-movement quartet here and if parts are a little more conventional than elsewhere in his quartet writing there is no loss of wit and elegance.

Bert Hagels’ notes set the scene admirably.

The performances are stylistically splendidly apt. There are Haydnesque affiliations and some passages may sound like forerunning Mozart. However the Lotus Quartet is alert to the dangers of drifting too near these great contemporaries. Their ensemble sound is deft, quite light, but delightfully aerated. Textures are clean, phrasing beautiful. There’s recording quality to match.

Jonathan Woolf

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