Johannes Matthias SPERGER (1750-1812)
Symphony No. 26 in C minor (1787) [19:17]
Symphony No. 21 in G minor (1786?) [23:31]
Symphony No. 34 in D major (1789) [19:41]
L’arte del mondo/Werner Ehrhardt
rec. 2014, Bayer Erholungshaus, Leverkusen
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 88875056172 [62:39]
It was a matter of some disappointment when Chandos closed its “Contemporaries of Mozart” series, after more than twenty releases under the stewardship of Matthias Bamert. It seems that Werner Ehrhardt and his orchestra have picked up the mantle, with releases on a number of different labels, including CPO (Carl Stamitz), Capriccio (Eichner), Phoenix Edition (Kraus – review) and most recently Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. They have not only recorded orchestral works but also a number of operas from little-known composers of this era.
Sperger didn’t make it into the Chandos series, though I did recognise his name from a Naxos release of three symphonies for strings (review). His main claim to fame during his life was as a double bass virtuoso, and he served in a number of court orchestras in this role. Clearly, he was also encouraged to compose as these three symphonies are from a total of forty-five, only one of which has been lost.
You tend to know what you are getting with so many works of this period: pleasing melodies, jaunty rhythms in the fast movements, restrained elegance in the slow, the occasional burst of Sturm und Drang. Only the great composers – Mozart and Haydn – managed to transcend the “formula” that was essentially imposed upon the composers of the time by their employers, the princes and counts and other nobility, who wanted pleasing but not strenuous music for the entertainment of themselves and their entourages. I am choosing my words carefully here, as I was taken to task recently on the Message Board for being overly dismissive of some piano trios of the era.
So where does Sperger sit in the ranks of the “Contemporaries of Mozart (and Haydn)”? I am pleased to report that on the evidence of these three works, he is well up the league table. They strike me as having a good deal of interest, both rhythmic and melodic. None has a slow introduction, putting them closer to Mozart than Haydn. The G minor is an exceptional work, with an ominously searching opening that could be said to somewhat anticipate the great Mozart symphony No. 40, which would come a couple of years later. It has a lovely slow movement, and an inventive and unusual Menuettos. Sperger’s Finales are perhaps not his strong point, but even here, the G minor one maintains the quality of the rest of the work. The other two are not at the same level, but are perfectly good examples of symphonies of this era.
L’arte del mondo was founded by Werner Ehrhardt in 2004. On this recording, it comprises fourteen string players with wind, brass and timpani as required, using period instruments. Elegant is the adjective I would use to describe their playing, and it is certainly apposite for this style of music. They are not at the extreme end of HIP – tempos are not exaggerated, nor are the instrumental timbres. At times, I found myself wishing for a little more urgency and intensity. Sound quality is excellent, and the notes were a pleasant surprise with a significant quantity of biographical information as well as a lucid discussion of the music.