Saturday, September 16, 2023

Classical concertos & symphonies

There is not much chance that visitors of live concerts with music of the classical era have the chance to hear music by lesser-known contemporaries of the masters Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Even the best-known among them, such as Johann Nepomuk Hummel, take a minor role in modern concert life. It is thanks to some specialists, and in the latest decades in particular the representatives of historical performance practice, that now and then recordings of such repertoire are released. Today their composers are overshadowed by the 'masters'. That was very different in their own time. The two Kozeluchs, for instance, were highly respected in their time. They were just two of many composers and performers from Bohemia, who made a career in their own part of Europe or even far beyond. The first disc to be reviewed here includes three concertos for a wind instrument. During the baroque era the oboe was one of the most revered instruments. Two oboes, strings and basso continuo was the standard scoring of orchestral suites, and many composers wrote concertos and sonatas for it as well as obbligato parts in vocal works. The best-known oboe concerto from the classical era is the one by Mozart. According to Karl Böhmer, in his liner-notes to this recording, Jan Anton Kozeluch's Concerto in F is one of the best of its time, and written in the classical style. Many concertos of the classical era show the influence of opera, and that manifests itself here especially in the slow movement. The bassoon was also often part of the scoring of baroque orchestral suites, but in comparison to the oboe, only a few composers wrote solo concertos or sonatas for it. Antonio Vivaldi was the first prolific composer of bassoon concertos, and in Germany it was Christoph Graupner who composed some virtuosic bassoon concertos. In the classical era it is Mozart's concerto that is best-known, although by far not as famous as his clarinet concerto. Jan Anton Kozeluch wrote the Concerto in C that has become part of the standard repertoire. Many pieces by the Kozeluch's are hard to attribute to one of them, as they often mention only 'Kozeluch' as the name of the composer. That is also the case with the Concerto in B flat, whose solo part falls within the range of a baroque bassoon and therefore may be the earliest piece on this disc. It may be an early work of Leopold. The disc ends with the latter's Symphony in g minor, which is one of three dating from the 1780s. Böhmer mentions similarities with Mozart's last symphonies, and it is interesting to note that Kozeluch's symphonies precede them. This disc is a worthy tribute to two composers whose oeuvre is seriously underexposed, which is unjustified, as this recording proves. Both Giovanni de Angeli and Sergio Azzolini deliver excellent performances of the solo parts. Especially interesting is Azzolini's instrument, an original bassoon of around 1794. Camerata Rousseau is their outstanding partner, and closes this disc with an energetic performance of Leopold Kozeluch's symphony.

Like the Kozeluchs, Antonin Reicha was from Bohemia. He is better-known than they, but mainly because of his connection to Beethoven. As far as his oeuvre is concerned, the wind quintets are part of the standard repertoire of wind ensembles, but he has written much more, which is seldom performed. That makes the second disc reviewed here especially important. It includes two sinfonias concertante, specimens of a genre that was very popular in the classical era. The first such works were written and performed in Paris in the second half of the 18th century. Such pieces were something between a symphony and a solo concerto. They were always scored for an orchestra with solo parts for two or more instruments. The main aim of a sinfonia concertante was entertainment. The genre belongs among the 'lighter' genres of the time. However, the way composers treated it was different. One of the best-known pieces of this kind is Mozart's Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, which is one of his most-beloved works for a reason. The two sinfonias concertante by Reicha which Stephan MacLeod recorded with his orchestra Gli Angeli Genève and four soloists, are far more than mere entertainment. The sheer size of these works - around 30 and 40 minutes respectively - indicates that these are substantial works. That goes in particular for the Sinfonia concertante in E, which has two cello parts that are technically challenging; in comparison the parts for transverse flute and violin in the Sinfonia concertante in G are easier to deal with. At the same time, as Alexis Kossenko states in the booklet, it is obvious that Reicha, having been educated at the flute, had an intimate knowledge of the instrument. This work is closer to the ideal of entertainment than the other piece. In the work for two cellos we find traces of opera, as in the concertos on the first disc. It is also uncommon in that it opens in C major rather than the main key of E major. This disc should contribute to giving Reicha its rightful place in the landscape of classical music. These two works deserve the best possible performances, and that is exactly what they get here. Chouchane Siranossian, Alexis Kossenko, Christophe Coin and Davit Malkonyan are top-class performers, who deliver outstanding performances of the solo parts and are also fully integrated in the orchestra. In particular the Sinfonia concertante in E was recorded in difficult circumstances, due to the restrictions because of COVID-19. It is a token of the quality of the soloists and the orchestra that the result is this good.

The third disc is devoted to Johann Wilhelm Wilms, a composer of German birth, who settled in Amsterdam in 1791 and played a major role in music life in the Netherlands in the early 19th century, as a composer, a conductor, a flautist and a pianist. In the last twenty years or so we witness a modest revival of his output. Some of his symphonies and solo concertos have been recorded, but the Accent disc seems to include only first recordings of his clarinet concerto and two sinfonias concertante, which he himself called just Concertante. The most remarkable piece may well be the Concerto in B flat for clarinet, which - according to the soloist, Ernst Schlader - is technically comparable with Mozart's concerto. He also notes some tricky passages that point in the direction of clarinet works by Weber. The two sinfonias concertante are not without technical challenges either. That goes, for instance, for the cello part in the Concertante in C. The other solo parts are for transverse flute, clarinet, bassoon and violin. The Concertante in F is scored for transverse flute, oboe or clarinet (here the oboe has been chosen), bassoon, horn and orchestra. The 'entertainment' in these works comes in the last movements: a polonaise closes the Concertante in C and the clarinet concerto. The Concertante in F comprises only two movements: the first is in three sections (allegro - andante - allegro), the second is a set of variations - a very popular form at the time. So far the ensemble Harmonie Universelle has almost entirely confined itself to music from the baroque era; this is probably the latest music it has ever played. It does so very well, and it is nice that they have focused on Wilms, who deserves more interest than he has been given so far. With Andreas Spering they have invited a conductor with vast experience in the classical repertoire. The soloists do an excellent job here as well; they are all specialists on their respective (historical) instruments. This disc is a most convincing case for Johann Wilhelm Wilms.

[1] Johann Antonin & Leopold Kozeluch: "Concertos and Symphony"
Giovanni de Angeli, oboe; Sergio Azzolini, bassoon; Camerata Rousseau/Leonardo Muzii
Sony 19439788202 (© 2021) details

[2] Antonin Reicha: "Symphonies concertantes"
Alexis Kossenko, transverse flute; Chouchane Siranossian, violin; Christophe Coin, Davit Melkonyan, cello; Gli Angeli Genève/Stephan MacLeod
Claves CD 50-3011 (© 2020) details

[3] Johann Wilhelm Wilms: "Clarinet Concerto, Sinfonie Concertante"
Ernst Schlader, clarinet; Harmonie Universelle/Andreas Spering
Accent ACC 24391 (© 2023) details

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Tunes from the British Isles

Most 'classical' music performed today in churches and concert halls all over the world, and recorded on disc, belongs among the category of what is called 'art music'. It was written by composers and has come down to us in fixed form, either in manuscript or in printed editions. However, in the course of history, much music - and probably even most - was sung and played by people who did not use any written notes; many of them were probably not even able to read music. Improvisation was the name of the game, and music was handed over from one generation to another orally. It had no fixed form, and in the course of time, both texts and music often changed considerably. In most cases their original forms are not known, unless at some time such music was written down. That is the case with the music which is the subject of a recording by an the Makaris [1], whose name is derived from makar (pl. makaris), a royal court troubadour of medieval Scotland; the term was resurrected centuries later and is used now to describe a Scottish bard or poet (booklet).

The title of this disc also needs some explanation. David Rizzio, of Italian origin, was secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots. In 1566 he was murdered by Mary's Protestant opponents. He was also a bass singer, but there is no reason to think that he has ever written any note of music. However, a number of songs are attributed to him, and that was the work of William Thomson (c1684-c1762), who in 1726 published a collection of songs under the title of Orpheus Caledonius. It was the first printed edition of arrangements of traditional Scottish songs, consisting fifty settings by Thomson over a figured bass. For 43 melodies no composer was mentioned, and it is likely that Thomson plagiarized their texts from a book of Scottish poetry published two years before. Thomson attributed the seven remaining melodies to David Rizzio. The reason for that may well have been that the Italian style was fashionable and that attributing melodies to an Italian Thomson hoped to sell more copies. Several respected composers fell for this myth, including James Oswald and Francesco Geminiani.

Makaris's disc presents all 22 songs falsely attributed to Rizzio, in various arrangements, mostly by composers from the 18th century (Geminiani, Veracini, JC Bach), but also by members of the ensemble. Most of them are performed in a combination of voice and instruments, and some are performed in instrumental versions. In some cases, arrangements by different composers have been mixed. The only composer who is represented with original music, is James Oswald. This disc seems to me of great interest to any lover of traditional music. What we have here is the performance in historical fashion - with instruments of the 18th century - of music from a stage in its development in which it was fixed. It is not only an interesting contribution to our knowledge of the music scene in 18th-century England, but also the history of traditional music and the way it developed in the course of time. Even if you don't understand all the texts, this is an enjoyable disc, as the members of the ensemble perform these pieces with audible enthusiasm and technical skills on their respective instruments.

The second disc is more modest with regard to the participation of instruments. Most pieces are played on the harp, either solo or with violin; the latter was the instrument of the Irish Turlough O'Carolan, and he is one of the best-represented composers on the programme recorded by the ensemble Spirit & Pleasure [2]. This ensemble consists of Christoph Mayer (violin) and Johanna Seitz (harp), in a few pieces joined by Monika Nielen on the oboe. Whereas Makaris entirely focused on tunes from Scotland, here we also get some from Ireland and England. The above-mentioned Geminiani is also represented, and so is James Oswald, who was from Scotland and was educated on the cello. He settled in London and became acquainted with the English, Italian and French styles. He a had a strong influence on later generations of composers.

The pieces in the programme belong among two categories. On the one hand we have 'authentic' arrangements of traditional tunes in baroque style by the likes of Geminiani, O'Carolan and Oswald. On the other hand we have traditional tunes arranged in a comparable way by the performers themselves. The fact that composers of the 18th century arranged these tunes - and they were followed by classical masters such as Haydn and Beethoven - justifies this procedure, and it seems to me that they have done a fine job. The traditional tunes have their own charm, and even those who have no great interest in traditional music as such may well enjoy these tunes in a baroque shape. In this case there are no texts which are hard to understand, as the songs are performed instrumentally, which again is an entirely legitimate procedure.

[1] "The Galant David Rizzio - Eighteenth-century arrangements of traditional Scottish songs"
Olde Focus Recordings FCR921 (© 2022) details

[2] "Good taste - Baroque folk from Ireland, Scotland and England"
Spirit & Pleasure
Aeolus AE-10346 (© 2021) details