STAMITZ, C.: Orchestral Quartets, Op. 14
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Carl Stamitz (1745-1801)
Orchestral Quartets, Op. 14 Nos. 1 and 4 • Concertante Quartets, Op. 14 Nos. 2 and 5
Carl Stamitz is unquestionably the best-known of the second generation of composers associated with the Mannheim court although for most of his career he was based elsewhere. He received his earliest musical training from his brilliant and famous father, Johann, Director of Instrumental Music and leader of the incomparable Mannheim court orchestra. After his father's early death in 1757 Carl continued his studies with a number of leading court musicians and later joined the orchestra as a second violinist, a position which enabled him to continue to develop his formidable performing technique as well as study the contemporary Mannheim repertoire at first hand. His orchestral colleagues included a number of gifted composers, foremost among them Christian Cannabich, leader of the court orchestra.
Stamitz left Mannheim in 1770, travelling to Paris where, the following year, he was appointed court composer to Duke Louis of Noailles. Together with his brother Anton, Carl was a regular performer at the Concert Spirituel and undertook tours as a virtuoso to Vienna in 1772, to Frankfurt the following year, and in 1774, to Augsburg, Vienna and Strasbourg. After his departure from Paris in the late 1770s he never again held an important permanent position. He travelled incessantly, performing concerts throughout Europe and composing prolifically in all genres. Among his more unusual works from this period is a musical allegory to mark Blanchard's successful balloon ascent in 1787.
Stamitz's compositions enjoyed great popularity in their time and circulated widely in both printed and manuscript copies. When asked by his father whether he had met the Stamitzes in Paris, Mozart replied: "Of the two Stamitz brothers only the younger one [Anton] is here, the elder [Carl] (the real composer à la Hafeneder) is in London. They are indeed two wretched scribblers, gamblers, swillers and adulterers – not the kind of people for me. The one who is here has scarcely a decent coat to his back" [Letter of 9 July 1778]. As with so many comments originating from Mozart's illfated trip to Paris, his opinion of Carl Stamitz should be treated with some caution, particularly in the light of Gerber's later enthusiastic appraisal published in his Historisch-biographisches Lexikon der Tonkünstler in 1792:
"With what extraordinary art and facility he plays the viola! With what heavenly sweet tone and cantilena he enchants our ears with his viola d'amour – and with what fire and surety he plays the violin as Konzertmeister! Berlin, Dresden, many capitals and large cities are witness of his prowess! And he certainly would have been long attached to one of the German courts, if this artist's unusual dislike for all connections of this sort had not stood in the way of his entering an orchestra. Indeed, it is a great undertaking to live in Germany as a free artist. And he who tries and wishes to succeed must not have any less art than Stamitz … in his relationships, as highly esteemed for his honorable and noble character, as for his art".
In spite of his early fame, his obvious gifts as a performer and composer, and his sporadic experiments in alchemy, Carl Stamitz died so heavily in debt that his possessions had to be auctioned to help pay his creditors.
Stamitz composed nearly as much chamber music as he did the works for orchestra upon which his reputation today largely rests. His first published work was a set of six 'orchestral' quartets issued by the Parisian publisher Sieber in 1770 with a dedication to 'Sig. Di St. Giorgio' – M. de Saint-Georges, father of the celebrated mulatto violin virtuoso, composer and master swordsman Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Like his father's nine orchestral trios, composed in the mid-1750s [Naxos 8.553213], these works were intended to be suitable for performance a quattro or by an orchestra. They have something of the intimate quality of chamber music about them but they also demonstrate Stamitz's familiarity with the famous Mannheim orchestral style.
The six quartets of Op. 14, published in Paris by Sieber in 1776, present an altogether less homogenous appearance. Only two of the quartets are specifically designated 'orchestral' quartets; two others are described as 'concertante' quartets and the remaining two works are simply styled 'quartets' in which the uppermost part may be played by a flute, oboe, violin or clarinet. The two 'orchestral' quartets (Op.14 Nos. 1 and 4) demonstrate a considerable advance over their predecessors. They are larger in scale and more genuinely symphonic in their outer movements which make effective use of dense, busy string textures, dramatic dynamic shifts and urgent crescendos in the best Mannheim traditions. Although they would work satisfactorily as conventional string quartets it is clear from their style that they were conceived for orchestral performance. The case is by no means clear, however, with the 'concertante' quartets: were they intended to be performed strictly a quattro in the manner of other concertante quartets of the period or did Stamitz envisage that they would be performed as miniature symphonies concertantes? The 'solo' cues that appear sporadically throughout the parts are inconclusive and certainly cannot be taken to imply unequivocably that a concertino-ripieno relationship exists. Nonetheless, the frequent use of the extreme upper register of the cello undoubtedly benefits from a contrasting solid grounding in the 'tutti' sections. This kind of stylistic dichotomy does not arise in the authentic 'solo' quartets, Op. 14 Nos. 3 and 6. In these works the cello plays a conventional basso rôle and the uppermost part is idiomatically neutral in order to work equally well for several different instruments. With a little editorial license the two concertante quartets work very satisfactorily as scaled-down symphonies concertantes and are performed in this manner on the present recording.
The Op. 14 quartets reveal a side of Stamitz's work that is not very familiar to contemporary audiences. The qualities that make his symphonies and concertos so popular, however, are well in evidence in these charming works. They abound in brisk energetic, driving themes, sparkling string writing, and, in their slow movements, they possess the easy grace and elegance that that is the hallmark of so much of his work.