Ignaz HOLZBAUER (1711-1783)
Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major for violin, viola, cello & orchestra [13:12]
Ignaz Joseph PLEYEL (1757-1831)
Sinfonia Concertante in F major for flute, oboe, bassoon, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass & orchestra, B.113 (1792) [27:14]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major for flute, oboe, horn, bassoon & orchestra, KV297b (1778, reconstructed by Robert Levin) [27:08]
Basel Chamber Orchestra/Julia Schröder, Umberto Benedetti Michelangeli (Mozart)
rec. October 2015, Martinskirche, Müllheim, Switzerland
SONY CLASSICAL 88985 411782 [67:00]
The sinfonia concertante became very popular in the second half of the eighteenth century, especially in Paris, where it is known that at least 500 were composed in that period. The distinction between a work bearing this name and a concerto for multiple instruments, such as the Beethoven triple concerto, is somewhat nebulous, and certainly not clarified in the booklet, which seems to imply that concertos were only for single instruments.
Ignaz Holzbauer is the least known of the three composers here. Born in Vienna, his most important musical post was as Kapellmeister in Mannheim, where he conducted the famous orchestra, and was court composer, churning out a Telemann-like numbers of works, including over 200 symphonies. Mozart admired his music, writing in a 1777 letter that his music was very beautiful, and also that “what surprises me most of all is that a man as old as Holzbauer should still possess so much spirit, for you can’t imagine what fire there is in this music”. There is obviously a great deal of difference between what Mozart saw as fire and what we in the 21st century do. It is a pleasant enough way to spend thirteen minutes, but it doesn’t stay in the memory much beyond that.
Ignaz Pleyel’s name remains in the consciousness today for his piano factory and publishing business. He was, however, a considerable force in the late eighteenth century; a respected rival of Haydn - his former teacher - in London, where their music featured in competing public concerts. This work was written for one of those concerts, and is scored for what must be a record eight solo instruments. One wonders what the promoter of the concert, Wilhelm Cranmer, thought about paying for all these extra players. It is a significant step up in musical quality from the Holzbauer, and more than twice as long, in part needed to accommodate all the extra solo parts.
One oddity in the booklet, in the section about Pleyel: it describes the Paris concert hall named after him as “until recently one of Paris’s leading concert halls”. As far as I can tell, the Salle Pleyel is still fully operational, and with the finest acoustics I’ve ever heard. I will assume that this is a case of the author’s true meaning being lost in translation.
Mozart was introduced to the genre of the sinfonia concertante in Mannheim by Holzbauer, for which the world can be grateful as it led to the miracle that is K364 for violin and viola. He also began three others, only one of which was completed, that which is presented here. He composed it in Paris in 1778 for Jean Lagros, the promoter of the Concert Spirituel, who did not want to use it, possibly due to pressure from one of his established composers, Giovanni Cambini. The work then disappears, and was listed as lost in the Köchel catalogue. Later, a score of a sinfonia concertante was found in Mozart’s unpublished papers, but for a slightly different group of instruments, with clarinet instead of flute. The story gets complicated and controversial at this point, suffice to say that the renowned keyboardist Robert Levin has opted to replace the usually heard orchestral parts, which he believes not to be by Mozart, and restore the flute. This story is documented in the booklet. Therefore, what we have is only partly Mozart, but it is to Levin’s credit that it does sound like the great one. Top-drawer it may not be, but even second-rate Mozart is better than most.
The Basel orchestra play modern instruments without vibrato, and I’m sure there are very good reasons for this, but at times I wished for a little more warmth. I was very impressed by this group in a collection of Baroque concertos (review), especially the vibrancy of their playing; I find a little less of that here. I’ve noted a few issues in the notes, which concentrate on the historical aspects of the works and the composers, rather than the musical elements.
With music of this era and type, you can be fairly confident about what to expect: elegant, tuneful, occasionally amusing, and nothing to frighten the horses. With these three works, one gets precisely that, but after an hour or so, I found myself wanting a little more.