VANHAL: Symphonies, Vol. 3 (Kevin Mallon/ Toronto Camerata) (Naxos: 8.557483)
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Johann Baptist Vaňhal (1739-1813)
Symphonies, Vol. 3
Johann Baptist Vaňhal was one of the most popularViennese composers during his lifetime. History,however, has been unkind to his reputation, the result ofirresponsible statements that were made by imaginativeauthors who were neither acquainted with himpersonally nor his circumstances. Wild claims havebeen made that early in his career he was so overcomeby madness caused by religious fervour that he burnedsome of his music and thereafter the quality ofcompositions deteriorated so much that he neverrealised the promise of his early works. The absurdity ofthis assertion is at once apparent from the works on thisrecording which includes a brilliant minor-keysymphony dating from the early 1760s and the masterlyA flat symphony composed a decade later. His immensevitality and inventiveness are evident in both andillustrate why Vaňhal was considered such an importantexponent of the genre.
The Symphony in D major, (Bryan D2), is one ofVaňhal's earliest symphonies and was probablycomposed during the years 1763-1765. Judging fromthe number of references to the work in contemporarythematic catalogues and the thirteen reliable manuscriptsources that survive it must have been unusuallypopular. It was probably well-known in London since itwas published there as Periodical Overture No. 53 byBremner. As is so often the case with Vaň hal'ssymphonies it is impossible to establish for whom thework was composed. Its bright key and fullorchestration with two dialoguing wind-choirs suggeststhat it was created for a patron who wanted the dynamicand brilliant effect typically produced by the inclusionof trumpets and timpani. It is one of Vaňhal's earliestsymphonies and in the first movement especially onecan distinguish between his Baroque heritage, manifestin the movement's forward-driving momentum andemployment of short melodic units punctuated byfrequent dynamic shifts, and his new-found interest inlonger melodic lines, which would become one of thehallmarks of the mature classical style. The surpriseintrusion of a new theme in the central section of themovement is well-judged and shows a composer whoeven at this relatively early stage of his career is notcontent slavishly to follow established conventions butrather explore and develop new solutions to theproblems of form. The other movements are also veryattractive and worthy of close examination both onaccount of their musical qualities and the manner oftheir construction. The derivation of each from themotifs which open them and the remarkable irregularitycreated by the use of asymmetrical phrases, such as inthe Menuetto, are highly effective and lend the music apeculiar lilting grace which is so much part of theeighteenth-century Viennese tradition. The rapidlymovingperpetual-motion finale with its scurrying stringwriting and braying trumpets brings the work to arousing brilliant D major conclusion.
The Symphony in C minor (Bryan c2) is one of anumber of impressive minor-key works composed byVaňhal in the mid-1760s and early 1770s. In one extantsource the work is misattributed to Joseph Haydn whocoincidentally was a great admirer of Vaň hal'ssymphonies and performed a number of them with theEsterhazy orchestra. This work is one of the finestsymphonies Vaňhal composed during his early years inVienna. Like the Sinfonia in D major it has a number ofstylistic features that belong to the older tradition whileexhibiting many forward-looking techniques that wouldbecome an integral part of his style in the 1770s. Therelentless drive of the outer movements is reminiscentof the Baroque, and also of the so-called Sturm undDrang style most often associated with Haydn's minorkeysymphonies composed during the years ca 1768-1772, but the eleven-bar piano cantabile theme thatopens the work anticipates the type of thematicconstruction and phrase morphology encountered in themature classical style. The larger than usualinstrumentation and the manner in which the hornsoboesquartet and trumpets-timpani trio are employedsuggest that the symphony might have been written fora special occasion. The entire work shows Vaňhal'searly fascination with the minor mode and it is, in fact,the only one of his symphonies in which all themovements are in the minor mode.
The magnificent Symphony in A flat, composed inall likelihood in Vienna about 1772-1773, is uniqueamong Vaňhal's symphonies both on account of its keyand the use of a horn soloist in the second movement.
Although the work appears to have circulatedreasonably widely in manuscript, it was never publishedin the composer's lifetime. Symphonies in the key of Aflat major are seldom encountered in the eighteenthcentury. Vaňhal's choice of such an unusual key is,therefore, interesting and might well reflect aestheticconsiderations, the special effect (Affekt) of the keyitself. Equally, however, it might have been tocomplement the second movement which features asolo horn (in E flat), accompanied by a choir of stringscon sordino, and two oboes, a lovely effect that resultsfrom the timbre of the horn combined with the swirlingsemiquaver-dominated, gossamer sound of the mutedstrings. The horn part is carefully written. It is confinedto the notes available on the natural horn without handstoppingand is less demanding than the secondmovements of the horn concertos by Mozart and Haydn,but it still requires a player with flexibility and theability to traverse the range from c1 to c3. One mightsuppose that it would be playable by the average firsthornist who would be encountered in the normalViennese orchestra, that is, not a virtuoso. It would beinteresting to know for whom this symphony waswritten, and who was the horn player entrusted toperform the lyrical second movement.
By the time Vaňhal composed the Symphony in Aflat major he had already written more than fiftysymphonies. It is a serious work, the product of amature composer whose concept of what a symphonyshould be was well established in his mind. Each of itsfour movements has full-blown proportions: the firstand final movements are in sonata form and have threelengthy themes. The second movement is a song-formsonata with exposition, a middle section of seventeenbars with a new thematic idea mostly in E flat minor,and a recapitulation. It could easily be the secondmovement of a horn concerto. The attractive melodiclines of the Menuetto and Trio feature unusual phraselengths created by various techniques of phraseextension, including dialoguing between the strings andthe four-voiced wind choir in the Trio. The extendedtempo indications on the movements, as, for example,for the second movement, which is not simply Adagiobut Adagio molto cantabile, while Minuetto I isqualified with 'ma un poco allegro', is a typical waywhereby Vaňhal sought to control performances of hislater symphonies.
Composed around 1772-1773 when Vaňhal was inhis mid-thirties, the Symphony in G major (Bryan G6),like the previous work, is one of Vaň hal's latersymphonies and like them it employs many of the sametechniques of musical organization. Here, however,Vaňhal reverts to the kind of experimentation found inhis earlier symphonies. He superimposes a rondo-likeuse of the main theme upon the basic sonata principlewith its well-defined tonal scheme and pattern ofexposition-development-recapitulation. The result is thatthere are six complete statements of the opening theme thehead motif of which also serves its usual constructionalfunction throughout the movement. The musicalorganization of the movement is subtle and highly original;the return of the head-motif in the last bars is unexpectedyet provides the most appropriate and satisfying conclusionto this supreme example of Vaňhal's technical skill as acomposer. The second m