SPERGER: String Symphonies (Leopold Komárek/ Musica Aeterna/ Peter Zajicek) (Naxos: 8.554764)
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Johannes MatthiasSperger (1750-1812)
Symphonies in C, F andB flat major
Johannes Matthias Sperger was among the more prolific composers of histime. Nevertheless his contemporary reputation rested largely on his abilitiesas a player of the double bass, an instrument for which he wrote eighteenconcertos, as a performer using a five-string bass with various tunings. Bornin Feldsberg, the modern Valtice, he apparently studied first there with theorganist Franz Anton Becker, before moving to Vienna, where he was a doublebass pupil of Friedrich Pichlberger, for whom, with the bass Franz Gerl, thefirst Sarastro, Mozart wrote his concert aria Per questa bella mano. Pichlbergerwas a member of Emanuel Schikaneder's orchestra and also took part in the firstperformances of The Magic Flute. Sperger took composition lessons fromBeethoven's later teacher, Albrechtsberger, and made his debut in Vienna withhis own compositions at the age of eighteen. There are records of a performanceof a symphony and a double bass concerto by Sperger in Vienna by theTonk??nstler-Sozietat on 20th December 1778 and the following year he became amember of the society. From 1777 until 1783 he served as a chamber musician inthe musical establishment of the Cardinal Primate of Hungary, Prince Joseph vonBatthyanyi in Pressburg, the modern Bratislava and, as Pozsony, the thencapital of the kingdom of Hungary, giving solo performances also at theStadttheater in Br??nn (Brno). The Pressburg orchestra included fifteenstring-players, the oboists Johann and Philipp Teimer and the horn-players KarlFranz and Anton Bock, and there were string-players able to double onclarinets, bassoon and flute, as necessary. Trumpets and drums were alsoavailable, as usual in establishments of this kind. Sperger entered the serviceof Count Ladislav Erdody at Fidisch in 1783, continuing there until hispatron's death in 1786. In the following years he continued to appear as asoloist, travelling to various cities in Germany and in 1789 to Northern Italy.
In 1788 he had played in Ludwigslust and the following year he was appointed tothe musical establishment of the Grand Duke Friedrich Franz I ofMecklenburg-Schwerin, with its band of 21 musicians, continuing in thisemployment until his death in 1812, when he was commemorated by a performance,a fortnight after his death, of Mozart's Requiem.
Sperger wrote a large part of his music, his concertos, cassations,serenades and 45 symphonies, during the period he spent in Pressburg. Thesymphonies have survived in various forms. The simplest version of the Symphonyin C major is found in the Slovak scores of the Jesuit and Piaristestablishment at Trenčin, amplified at Schwerin into a four-movement workwith the addition of oboes and French horns and, in a third version, oftrumpets and timpani. The Symphony in F major and the Symphony in B flatmajor survive in an earlier version found at Pruske, and were also extended inlater versions. The second of these was sent by Sperger in 1782 to the Bishopof Raabe and Prince Esterhazy and was listed under the year 1777 as SinfoniaNo.6 in the composer's later catalogue of his compositions. Thisapplication was clearly in the course of a search for other employment, asBatthyanyi's establishment and position were by then under threat from theEmperor. It might be added that there is no documentary evidence of any otherconnection between Sperger and the Esterhazy musical establishment directed byHaydn. Among Sperger's symphonies is one that strangely mirrors Haydn's FarewellSymphony, for his musicians anxious to leave the relatively remote palaceof Esterhaza to rejoin their families. While Haydn's players went out one byone during the course of the work, Sperger's Grande Sinfonie in F of1796 starts with only two violins, joined gradually by other members of theorchestra until the full complement is present.
The three symphonies here included are all in three movements andscored, in these versions, for strings and continuo. The first, the Symphony inC major, offers an opening Allegro in the lucid style and form of theperiod. This is followed by a slow movement, marked Andante, its generally brighter mood contrasted with anexcursion into the minor, a cloud that soon passes with the return of thematerial of the opening. The symphony ends with a Presto. The unisonopening provokes an energetic reply, as the movement embarks on its rapid andepisodic course.
The Symphony in Fmajor has an imposing opening with a tripartite sonata-form movementthat brings the usual contrasts of theme and a relatively turbulent centraldevelopment section. The second movement is a Minuet, framing a Trio thatallows changes of texture. The symphony ends with an Allegro that bringsmoments of excitement and variety in its well-crafted course, a challenge tothe achievements of Mannheim.
Sperger's Symphony inB flat major follows what is now the established form in its firstmovement, making good use of dynamic contrasts and moments of silence, withturns of phrase that are instantly recognisable as part of the musical languageof the time. Sperger follows precedent in starting the central development witha shift into a minor key, before the return of the first material inrecapitulation. The second movement is a Minuet, in the statelier formthat retains its association with the dance from which it takes its name. Adelicately pointed Trio provides the necessary element of contrast. Thelast movement, marked Prestissimo, is one of some brilliance, anappropriate conclusion to the whole work. The repeated exposition has its owntouches of drama and these are intensified in the central development. The workends with the expected eclat.