In one way, a review of this type of music is quite easy. Mid-eighteenth century symphonies, not by Haydn: even before playing them, one can be fairly sure that they will be enjoyable and melodious but occasionally repetitive and not especially memorable. A listen confirms all of these descriptions. Job done … well not quite, as our editor frowns on three line reviews, and this is where it becomes more challenging.
Beck, almost an exact contemporary of Haydn, was born in Mannheim, so important in the evolution of the symphony. There, he was a student of Johann Stamitz. He left Mannheim for Venice, one story suggesting that he fled under the apprehension that he had killed his opponent in a duel, a more mundane one being that he left to become a student of Baldassare Galuppi. He eloped with his employer’s daughter, and eventually became leader of an orchestra in Marseilles. It is after his arrival in France that his musical reputation was established by the rapid publishing of four sets of symphonies in Paris.
These six symphonies are scored for strings and harpsichord, with Numbers 1 & 5 having a pair of horns for a little extra colour. They are all in three movements, with a Presto as finale. If you are going to preview this CD on one of the many sites offering audio samples, I would not opt to start with Number 1, which is rather bland. Numbers 2, the only one in a minor key, and 3 have much more appeal.
Naxos has been very loyal to Beck; this is their fifth CD featuring his symphonies, and the second with the Irish-born Canadian-based conductor, Kevin Mallon. He is very much a house conductor for the label, most often with the Aradia Ensemble. This is his first recording with the Ottawa Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra – I will leave you to work out how many players they have. The performances are clean and sprightly, but since Beck was not one for “Mannheim Rocket” crescendos, opportunities to demonstrate virtuosity are limited.
If you are a collector of the early symphony, you will want this, as it appears to be the only available recording of this set, though no claim is made for premiere recordings.