About this Recording
8.557483 - VANHAL: Symphonies, Vol. 3
English  German 

Johann Baptist Vaňhal (1739-1813)
Symphonies, Vol. 3

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 neither acquainted with him personally nor his circumstances. Wild claims have been made that early in his career he was so overcome by madness caused by religious fervour that he burned some of his music and thereafter the quality of compositions deteriorated so much that he never realised the promise of his early works. The absurdity of this assertion is at once apparent from the works on this recording which includes a brilliant minor-key symphony dating from the early 1760s and the masterly A flat symphony composed a decade later. His immense vitality and inventiveness are evident in both and illustrate why Vaňhal was considered such an important exponent of the genre.

The Symphony in D major, (Bryan D2), is one of Vaňhal’s earliest symphonies and was probably composed during the years 1763-1765. Judging from the number of references to the work in contemporary thematic catalogues and the thirteen reliable manuscript sources that survive it must have been unusually popular. It was probably well-known in London since it was published there as Periodical Overture No. 53 by Bremner. As is so often the case with Vaň hal’s symphonies it is impossible to establish for whom the work was composed. Its bright key and full orchestration with two dialoguing wind-choirs suggests that it was created for a patron who wanted the dynamic and brilliant effect typically produced by the inclusion of trumpets and timpani. It is one of Vaňhal’s earliest symphonies and in the first movement especially one can distinguish between his Baroque heritage, manifest in the movement’s forward-driving momentum and employment of short melodic units punctuated by frequent dynamic shifts, and his new-found interest in longer melodic lines, which would become one of the hallmarks of the mature classical style. The surprise intrusion of a new theme in the central section of the movement is well-judged and shows a composer who even at this relatively early stage of his career is not content slavishly to follow established conventions but rather explore and develop new solutions to the problems of form. The other movements are also very attractive and worthy of close examination both on account of their musical qualities and the manner of their construction. The derivation of each from the motifs which open them and the remarkable irregularity created by the use of asymmetrical phrases, such as in the Menuetto, are highly effective and lend the music a peculiar lilting grace which is so much part of the eighteenth-century Viennese tradition. The rapidlymoving perpetual-motion finale with its scurrying string writing and braying trumpets brings the work to a rousing brilliant D major conclusion.

The Symphony in C minor (Bryan c2) is one of a number of impressive minor-key works composed by Vaňhal in the mid-1760s and early 1770s. In one extant source the work is misattributed to Joseph Haydn who coincidentally was a great admirer of Vaň hal’s symphonies and performed a number of them with the Esterházy orchestra. This work is one of the finest symphonies Vaňhal composed during his early years in Vienna. Like the Sinfonia in D major it has a number of stylistic features that belong to the older tradition while exhibiting many forward-looking techniques that would become an integral part of his style in the 1770s. The relentless drive of the outer movements is reminiscent of the Baroque, and also of the so-called Sturm und Drang style most often associated with Haydn’s minorkey symphonies composed during the years ca 1768- 1772, but the eleven-bar piano cantabile theme that opens the work anticipates the type of thematic construction and phrase morphology encountered in the mature classical style. The larger than usual instrumentation and the manner in which the hornsoboes quartet and trumpets-timpani trio are employed suggest that the symphony might have been written for a special occasion. The entire work shows Vaňhal’s early fascination with the minor mode and it is, in fact, the only one of his symphonies in which all the movements are in the minor mode.

The magnificent Symphony in A flat, composed in all likelihood in Vienna about 1772-1773, is unique among Vaňhal’s symphonies both on account of its key and the use of a horn soloist in the second movement. Although the work appears to have circulated reasonably widely in manuscript, it was never published in the composer’s lifetime. Symphonies in the key of A flat major are seldom encountered in the eighteenth century. Vaňhal’s choice of such an unusual key is, therefore, interesting and might well reflect aesthetic considerations, the special effect (Affekt) of the key itself. Equally, however, it might have been to complement the second movement which features a solo horn (in E flat), accompanied by a choir of strings con sordino, and two oboes, a lovely effect that results from the timbre of the horn combined with the swirling semiquaver-dominated, gossamer sound of the muted strings. The horn part is carefully written. It is confined to the notes available on the natural horn without handstopping and is less demanding than the second movements of the horn concertos by Mozart and Haydn, but it still requires a player with flexibility and the ability to traverse the range from c1 to c3. One might suppose that it would be playable by the average first hornist who would be encountered in the normal Viennese orchestra, that is, not a virtuoso. It would be interesting to know for whom this symphony was written, and who was the horn player entrusted to perform the lyrical second movement.

By the time Vaňhal composed the Symphony in A flat major he had already written more than fifty symphonies. It is a serious work, the product of a mature composer whose concept of what a symphony should be was well established in his mind. Each of its four movements has full-blown proportions: the first and final movements are in sonata form and have three lengthy themes. The second movement is a song-form sonata with exposition, a middle section of seventeen bars with a new thematic idea mostly in E flat minor, and a recapitulation. It could easily be the second movement of a horn concerto. The attractive melodic lines of the Menuetto and Trio feature unusual phrase lengths created by various techniques of phrase extension, including dialoguing between the strings and the four-voiced wind choir in the Trio. The extended tempo indications on the movements, as, for example, for the second movement, which is not simply Adagio but Adagio molto cantabile, while Minuetto I is qualified with ‘ma un poco allegro’, is a typical way whereby Vaňhal sought to control performances of his later symphonies.

Composed around 1772-1773 when Vaňhal was in his mid-thirties, the Symphony in G major (Bryan G6), like the previous work, is one of Vaň hal’s later symphonies and like them it employs many of the same techniques of musical organization. Here, however, Vaňhal reverts to the kind of experimentation found in his earlier symphonies. He superimposes a rondo-like use of the main theme upon the basic sonata principle with its well-defined tonal scheme and pattern of exposition-development-recapitulation. The result is that there are six complete statements of the opening theme the head motif of which also serves its usual constructional function throughout the movement. The musical organization of the movement is subtle and highly original; the return of the head-motif in the last bars is unexpected yet provides the most appropriate and satisfying conclusion to this supreme example of Vaňhal’s technical skill as a composer. The second movement is also constructed according to sonata principles with a continuous melodic flow extending the opening figure with its lilting, quavernote rhythm. The solo flute part mostly doubles the first violin melody an octave higher. The movement would be complete without it, but it would be sorely missed were it absent, since it lends such a distinctive colour to the movement. A further instance of Vaňhal’s sensitivity to orchestral colour can be heard at one point where he writes the viola part above both the first and second violin parts.

One of the most interesting aspects of the eighteenthcentury Viennese symphony is the gradual transformation of the minuet from a dance to something more abstract and stylized. That Menuetto I and II are here clearly not intended for dancing is at once apparent on account of their employment of irregular phrase-lengths and occasional cross accents created by the use of szforzandi in the internal voices. In movements such as these, and in many of Haydn’s later minuets, are to be found the seeds of the Beethovenian scherzo. The sprightly Finale is also a finelywrought movement and the surprising dominance of the minor mode in the powerful development section, which vacillates between A minor, E minor and D minor, gives the movement a depth that its perky opening theme seems to belie.

Paul Bryan and Allan Badley


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