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8.554138 - VANHAL: Symphonies, Vol. 2
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Johann Baptist Vaňhal (1739-1813)
Symphonies, Vol. 2

Johann Baptist Vaňhal was one of the most popular Viennese composers during his lifetime. History however, has been unkind to his reputation, the result of irresponsible statements that were made by imaginative authors who were not acquainted with him or his circumstances. The general impression is that he was melancholy and depressed when, in truth, he appears to have been basically happy and personable. Wild claims have also been made that early in his career he was so overcome by madness caused by religious fervour that he burned some of his music. After that, the story goes, the quality of compositions deteriorated so much that he never realised the promise of his early works. The lie to this assertion is given by the splendid symphonies included here, which range from the Symphony in B fiat major (Bryan Bb3), which probably dates from the period 1762-64, through to the Symphony in G major (Bryan G11), one of a number of brilliant symphonies Vaňhal composed in the mid-1770s. His vitality and inventiveness are evident in all of them.

One part of Vaňhal's reputation is, however, true. He was the first major composer of the time who was strong enough to renounce the offer of a 'good' – and terribly-demanding position – and to live comfortably until he died in Vienna at the age of 74. His success was possible because of his other personal characteristics. He was humble and deeply religious – not ambitious for fame, high position, or fortune. He was also shrewd, hard-working and sensitive to changing economic and social conditions. As a result he decided to cease composing symphonies and chamber music when the market in Vienna was drying up about the year 1780, and began to explore other possibilities. The results were spectacular. He composed, for example, more than 247 works (mostly unpublished), large and small, for the church. He also wrote a huge number of pieces all of which centred around the keyboard. His compositions included serious works, such as the keyboard Capriccios, and songs and cantatas for voice with keyboard accompaniment. He also published many pieces for instruction and entertainment which became very popular including imaginative pieces with descriptive titles such as The Battle of Trafalgar. In all he produced more than 1300 compositions in a wide variety of genres. To the present, only the symphonies and string quartets have been sufficiently studied to ascertain his complete contribution.

The present three symphonies provide a good introduction to Vaňhal's symphonic style and illustrate why he was considered such an important exponent of the genre.

One of Vaňhal' s early symphonies, Symphony in B flat major (Bryan Bb3) was probably composed between 1762 and 1764. It was well known in its time; there are five contemporary catalogue references to the work; a dozen manuscript copies are preserved in an equal number of archives; and four prints of it were issued by publishers, including Bremner, whose Periodical Overture No. 47 was published in London in 1775. This work demonstrates a number of facets of Vaňhal's musically imaginative and innovative nature, not least among them his highly developed sense of orchestral colour – he features his little wind choir of two oboes and two horns at times almost in the manner of a concertino group – and a predilection for unusual phrase lengths which invests the music with such rhythmic and structural interest. The lovely second movement Andante arioso, scored for strings alone, also makes wonderful use of this technique: its opening nine-bar phrase, answered by a five-bar phrase, imparts a slightly unsettling quality to the music for all its grace and transparency. With the Menuetto the wind instruments return and Vaňhal makes striking use of his wind quartet in Menuetto II which, coincidentally, shares a number of important thematic links with Menuetto I. The wind quartet is treated in a concertino fashion in the Finale, just as it was in the first movement, alternating piano with the tutti forte strings within the overall sonata scheme. And again, as they were in the first movement, the motifs from which the movement springs are contained within the opening theme Vaňhal is, at this stage, experimenting with the content of his symphonic movements but his basic principles of construction are established.

Vaňhal was not only an excellent and imaginative composer; he was also innovative and alert to the opportunities of the moment. One of the most outstanding examples of his musical astuteness in music concerns his use of multiple horns. The five horn parts in the Symphony in D minor (Bryan d2) are more than have been found to date in any other eighteenth-century symphony. The work was doubtless written for one of only a few orchestras, e.g., those of Prince Esterházy or the Prince of Thurn und Taxis, in whose collections copies of it are still found.

Six contemporary catalogues or references to the symphony are known and four manuscript copies of the work are preserved. All the evidence points to 1773-74 as the date or its composition. Vaňhal obviously considered it to be an important commission and planned to write a symphony that would accommodate the five hornists as well as an excellent oboist. At this stage in his career he was either ambivalent about composing Menuetto and Trio movements or the commissioner was not interested to have one. At any rate it is a three-movement work that is aesthetically satisfactory and complete.

The first and last movements are clearly meant to feature the five horns. Together with the two oboes, they fill in the harmony of the wind choir, and indeed, carefully complement the entire orchestra. The result is a uniquely rich orchestral timbre, especially in the tonic-key portions of the first and last movements where full harmony is achieved. It was undoubtedly one of the main reasons why the symphony was chosen for performance in Regensburg Cathedral on Good Friday in 1781.

In addition to the striking use of the horns and the beautiful solo for oboe, the highly-integrated symphonic construction of the first movement is remarkable. The entire movement is based upon three motifs heard in the opening thematic statement. The movement is harmonically very rich, not only in localised harmony but also in terms of tonal architecture; the recapitulation contains a monumental deflection from D minor to C minor via the unexpected key of B flat major. It constitutes a real interruption of the normal tonal scheme of sonata form and gives the effect of a false recapitulation or even of a second development.

The second movement, Cantabile, is a full-scale concerto movement for oboe, complete with orchestral ritornelli. Vaňhal doubtless knew the capabilities of the player for whom he composed the work; it does not demand a virtuoso performer but this attractive and lyrical movement provides opportunities for the player to ornament and includes the expected fermata for a cadenza and a written-out solo retransition to the recapitulation.

The Finale differs in style from the first movement but it too has interesting harmonic charms added to the forceful horns in the passage leading to the recapitulation. Again there is a stress on romantic harmonies, especially the Neapolitan sixth and the beautiful ending which, with its alternation of a minor and D minor chords, provides both a plagal effect and a Tierce de Picardie.

Vaňhal's Symphony in G major (Bryan G11) is one of his later works; it was probably composed some time during the years 1775-76. Its authenticity is attested by three contemporary catalogues and other references, and by three copies that have been found. At least one of them was copied by Viennese copyists, which lends a special element of authenticity.

The charming opening movement is every bit as finely wrought as its counterpart in the Symphony in D minor (Bryan d2). Once again, the opening phrase provides the thematic nucleus from which the entire movement is derived, and by shortening or avoiding harmonic-rhythmic cadences, a feeling is imparted of almost constant motion. The movement ends with a short codetta that reminds us of the lovely opening theme – followed by an emphatic repetition that provides a vigorous conclusion.

The Andante molto, scored for strings with a flute which mostly doubles the first violin at the upper octave, is a charming movement of elegant simplicity. Although the flute part is not strictly necessary it lends a wonderful delicacy of colour to the orchestration. The Menuetto & Trio is marked Allegretto, an indication that Vaňhal believed the tempo should move along. The melodic quality and symmetrical construction of both the Menuetto and Trio betray their origin, in the dance. The rhythmic after-beats in the winds together with the rollicking character of the string melody in the Trio suggest the character of a Ländler.

The tempo and character of the opening of the fourth movement seem better fitted to a leisurely opening movement than a finale, but this impression is dispelled in the powerful development section with its continuous forte marking and vigorous counterpoint. The sudden cessation of this activity and the simultaneous reduction in dynamic level at the moment of retransition to the recapitulation is the masterstroke of a symphonist of genius.

Paul Bryan

City of London Sinfonia
The City of London Sinfonia was founded in 1971 by its Music Director Richard Hickox and Leader and Director Andrew Watkinson. The orchestra carries out a schedule of some eighty concerts a year at many of the leading British festivals and concert venues, including recent appearances at the London Promenade Concerts and at the Barbican arts complex in the City of London, in addition to regular broadcasts and recordings. In 1997 the Sinfonia was honoured with the Royal Philharmonic Society's Large Ensemble Music Award and an Arts for Everyone Lottery Grant has allowed the establishment of three-year residencies in the East Anglian towns of Ipswich and King's Lynn. Recent concert tours abroad have included appearances throughout Europe, in South America and the Far East. At the same time the City of London Sinfonia is actively involved in a successful Education and Community Programme.


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