Wednesday 30 October 2013

The Birth of the Symphony

The Birth of the Symphony: Academy of Ancient Music AAM001
This new disc from the Academy of Ancient Music under Richard Egarr, the first on the ensemble's own label, traces the development of the symphony. Starting with the sinfonia from Handel's Saul (1738), we have Franz Xaver Richter's Grande simphonie No. 7 in C minor (1740), Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz's Sinfonia a 4 in D major (1750), Mozart's Symphony no. 1 in E flat major K16 (1764) and Haydn's Symphony No. 49 in F minor 'La passione' (1768).

This single CD could easily have been a boxed set, and one can think of lots of things that have been missed out (no Boyce and no JC Bach for instance). But here is a whistle-stop survey of the first 30 years of the symphony's development in some very fine performances.

In opera and oratorio, sinfonias were multi-movement works intended to catch the audience's attention. George Frideric Handel's (1685 -1759) Sinfonia from Saul (written in 1738) is a four-movement work with echoes of the French orchestral suite mixed in with other influences. Here we have a lively opening Allegro designed to catch the audiences attention followed by a graceful Larghetto. Then, something of a surprise, a lively Allegro which spotlights the oboe, here performed with a lovely mellow tone by Susanne Regel. The work concludes with a Minuet marked Andante, Handel's structure clearly indicating that this is not a free-standing work but one which precedes something.

Important in the development of the symphony was the orchestra at the court of Mannheim, between 1740 and 1770 it was one of the best in Europe, combining rhythmic vigour with sonic brilliance. It introduced new effects, the crescendo and diminuendo, thanks to the discipline of the ensemble. These effects, included such novel items as lengthy crescendos with the whole orchestra, abrupt dynamic changes, and swiftly ascending melodic figures - the famous “Mannheim rocket”. Franz Xaver Richter (1709 - 1789) joined the Mannheim court in 1748, but his Grande symphony No. 7 was published in 1744 and written in the late 1730's or early 1740's when he was working at a number of small courts in South-West Bavaria. The opening Allegro combines some amazing rhythmic impetus with a remarkable melodic felicity and some fascinating textures. The Andante is a sober and graceful movement, followed by a brisk and rhythmically infectious Allegro.

With the Sinfonia a 4 in D major from around 1750 by Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz (1717 - 175) we are in the Mannheim sound proper. Stamitz joined the Mannheim court in around 1741 and by the time this sinfonia was written he was Director of Instrumental music. It is an early work, for strings only, but still full of brilliance and vigour. A lively and rhythmic Presto opens things, with running scales in the violins over a rather static bass, here given a very catchy performance by the Academy of Ancient Music strings. Next an Andante where Stamitz displays some nice melodic felicity, still over rather a static bass line! Things conclude with another Presto, lively and with an attractive dance movement to it, with Egarr bringing out the contrasts in dynamic. In the Stamitz and Richter, though they are early works in the symphony's development, both composers used variations of the sonata principle to give tonal coherence to their orchestral writing.

The first symphony by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) dates from 1764 when the prodigy was in London. It is heavily influenced by the works of Johann Christian Bach (who was resident in London) and with whom Mozart established a strong friendship. A vigorous Molto Allegro opens the work; in it the young Mozart shows a good grasp of sonata form. The brief Andante is quite robust and makes you think of sturm und drang. The lively finale is a robust joy, a jig-like 3/8 movement.

By contrast, Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809) was an experienced writer of symphonies in the 1760's and his Symphony No. 49 in F minor, La Passione was written just four year's after the Mozart symphony. The key of F minor was associated with melancholy, hence the nickname. The opening movement is a dark and plaintive Adagio, rather penitential indeed. Whilst the slow opening movement is certainly striking, in fact the organisation of slow-fast-slow-fast was often used in the Italian sonata da chiesa. The second movement, Allegro di molto is all fast speeds and jagged rhythms. This symphony was written at the height of Haydn's sturm-und-drang period, so we have lots of dynamic contrasts, jagged rhythms and gloomy F minor movements! The Minuet and Trio is in F minor (the major appears briefly in the trio), giving the whole movement a stately, rather melancholic air. Finally in the Presto we get more liveliness and dynamic contrast.

The performances in all the pieces are exemplary. Most of the works were written to please and intrigue audiences, and the AAM under Egarr certainly bring out the rhythmic vivacity and suppleness of the music. Not all of it is great music, and I think that it is a shame that something of Stamitz more mature period could not have been given, particularly as it was at Mannheim that Mozart first heard clarinets in a symphony. But, as I said at the beginning, this could have been a boxed set!

The works were all recorded with quite a small ensemble just 16 players including Richard Egarr on harpsichord. The disc comes with an illuminating article by Stephen Rose which fills in the historical background and indicates how each work fits into the scheme of things. Plus a short article by Richard Egarr on the subject.

The disc's website includes a documentary on the works as well as a podcast, and the CD booklet in French and German.

In his note, Richard Egarr hopes that the disc whets our appetite. It certainly has mine, and I do hope that we might have more to come from the Academy of Ancient Music exploring the twilight world of the early symphony.

Birth of the Symphony: Handel to Haydn
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Sinfonia from Saul (1738) [10.43]
Franz Xaver Richter (1709 - 1789) - Grande simphonie No. 7 in C major (c.1740) [13.19]
Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz (1717 - 1757) - Sinfonia a 4 in D major (c.1750) [11.52]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) - Symphony No. 1in E flat major K16 (1764) [9.42]
Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809) - Symphony No. 49 in F minor 'La passione' (1768) [24.49]
Academy of Ancient Music
Richard Egarr (director and harpsichord)

Recorded at Saint Jude on the Hill, London, 21-23 September 2011
Academy of Ancient Music AAM001 1Cd [70.59]

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