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Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787)
Symphonies Op. 1 & Op. 4
Kölner Akademie/Michael Alexander Willens
Notes in German and English
rec. 2016, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne
CPO 555 137-2 [41:14 + 42:08]

Superficially these two sets of half a dozen Symphonies by the German-born, English-domiciled Carl Friedrich Abel look like generic compositions written to order with little imagination or creativity. They are all written in a limited cycle of major keys, and they all adopt a three-movement structure, with a spirited sonata form opening; a slower (though never languorous) middle movement to follow; and an upbeat finale, all in the meter of a minuet in the case of the Op. 1 set and two of Op. 4.

However, closer examination of these works shows that the composer rang the changes rather effectively. The long-breathed, and twisting melodies of so Rococo-style a work as Op. 1 No. 3 contrasts with the terser, insistent working out of a little two-note motif in the first movement of No. 2 of that set, which is followed by a probing, chromatic movement in the minor key. The tension built up in the development sections of the first movements of some of the Symphonies, with tremolo strings over a harmonically unsettled sequence, just vaguely hints at the Sturm und Drang which greater Classical masters such as CPE Bach and Haydn would explore in the years ahead. And the minuet finale of No. 6 encompasses a trio section in the minor key which shows a willingness to expand received forms into emotionally deeper waters.

One should not overstate the significance of these sets as particularly ground-breaking, but their early date – c.1760 and 1762 respectively – marks them out as noteworthy milestones in the history of the symphony, contemporary with Haydn’s earliest essays in the genre. For that reason, and the fact that Abel soon became a major influence upon the young Mozart when he visited London in 1764-5, these works demand some attention, especially as they foreshadow the first examples by the child genius from Salzburg; indeed at least one of Abel’s Symphonies was mistaken as one of Mozart’s in the 19th century and erroneously included in the Köchel catalogue as K18. The Kölner Akademie’s performances grip the listener with the exuberance of the first movements, particularly with the oboes and horns of the period ensemble adding bite and colour. The strings are lean but bright, which provide a lithe elegance to the slower movements, and in the minuets Michael Alexander Willens upholds a brisk pace to ensure that the music remains lively, as also in the more vigorous finales which are marked Presto or Allegro assai.

Repeats are erratically observed by Willens, with sometimes the second section of a movement given again, but not the first. Nevertheless, the phrases are always decorously turned, never unbalancing the overall structure in favour of short-term, sensational effects, but dynamics are executed when marked. These are delectable and graceful interpretations of some charming music that will please all fans of 18th century music, and casts light on musical life in London in the era immediately following that of Handel’s dominance. CPO have previously issued Abel’s other published sets of Symphonies with different ensembles, most recently the Op. 7 set, so this will be a welcome culmination for some collectors, but for others this offers an irresistible introduction to some well-crafted repertoire.
Curtis Rogers



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