Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723‒1787)
Six Symphonies, Op. 7
La Stagione Frankfurt/Michael Schneider
rec. Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, March 2015
CPO 777 993-2 [62:02]
It is initially disconcerting, when picking up a CD of music by a composer with an obviously German name, to be confronted with a reproduction of Louis Dodd’s handsome painting “A View of St Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London State Barge”. In fact, however, that cover image could hardly be more appropriate, given that Carl Friedrich Abel spent nearly half his life (from 1759) in London, and was a central figure in its musical culture – as composer, viola da gamba virtuoso and, not least, as co-organizer of the ‘Bach-Abel Concerts’, which ran between 1762 and 1782 and are widely regarded as England’s first subscription series. The Bach in question is Johann Christian, ‘the London Bach’, who was a close friend and business partner of Abel’s, and whose op. 3 Sinfonias of 1764 were composed more or less contemporaneously with the op. 7 Symphonies by Abel recorded here.
In the mid-eighteenth century the designations ‘sinfonia’, ‘symphony’ and indeed ‘overture’ were of course largely synonymous. In the case of both Abel and J. C. Bach, we are dealing with three-movement works which owe as much to the tripartite Italian opera overture as to any conception which we would nowadays recognize as ‘symphonic’. Hence, Abel’s op. 7 symphonies all begin with a sonata-form allegro and end with a dance-inflected rondo, which between them frame a slow movement (here invariably marked ‘andante’ or ‘andantino’, never ‘adagio’). I agree with Michael Schneider, in his splendidly scholarly booklet note, that these slow movements are perhaps the most distinctive feature of Abel’s writing: as he says, they are often “hymnic, song-like movements for strings alone, perfectly suited to reach the heart of the masses”. He goes too far, I think, in describing such movements as “pre-Elgarian” (more “post-Handelian”?), but they do differ significantly from many contemporary slow movements in the galant style, such as a good few of J. C. Bach’s.
On the whole, though, that the similarities between Abel’s music and that of the London Bach are very marked. Both convey, to my ear, an essential and invigorating happiness, involving reposeful beauty, but also a great deal of bustling, irrepressible high spirits – mixed in, of course, with lashings of eighteenth-century elegance. This tendency to look on the bright side is, if anything, still more apparent in Abel’s case than in that of his friend. Schneider informs us, tellingly, that Abel did not write a single symphony in a minor key – and certainly none of the exclusively major-key works recorded here allows much room for melancholy or even ambivalent introspection. The sun is perpetually out, and delightfully so.
There is a competing set on Chandos from Cantilena, but I haven't heard it
to allow a comparison. Michael Schneider’s direction of the 17-strong original instrument group La Stagione is alert, assured and rhythmically dynamic, and they respond with evident enthusiasm. The bulk of the work falls on the strings, but the woodwind – and especially the superb bassoonist Marita Schaar ‒ get their chance in the E flat Symphony op. 7/6, which was, for complicated reasons, formerly attributed to the eight-year-old Mozart. Both recording and documentation are excellent.
In sum, then, if you need your eighteenth-century music to convey spiritual profundity or Sturm und Drang turbulence, then you will need to look elsewhere. But if not, you will find this an utterly charming, life-enhancing and, above all, impeccably civilized issue.