Ernst Wilhelm Wolf (1735-1792) was a child prodigy, reputedly skilled in thoroughbass at the age of seven. Subsequently trained in Eisenach and Gotha, he was greatly influenced by compositions of C. H. Graun and C. P. E. Bach, both of whom were popular in the latter. (Bach himself heard one of the young composer's early works given in court, and praised it highly.) Wolf found his milieu at the Weimer court, where he was successively Konzertemeister in 1761, organist in 1763, and Kapellmeister in 1772-the last being a post he held until his death. He was part of the renowned artistic "Round Table" established by the young Duchess Anne Amalia, a group that also included at various times Herder, Kotzebue, Einsiedel, Wieland, and the young Goethe. At one point Frederick II of Prussia tried to woo Wolf away as a successor to Bach, but Amalia convinced the composer otherwise. It was a wise move, both on the part of the Duchess and the composer. Wolf's musical tastes were sophisticated and cosmopolitan, despite his solidly Baroque training, and Weimer was far more open to foreign artistic influences than the autocratic court of Prussia.
Much of Wolf's output was, sadly, lost over time, including several dozen motets and harpsichord concertos, various other sacred works, operas, and sonatas. Fortunately, at least 26 of an estimated 35 symphonies of his survive, from which the four on this release are drawn. With one exception, they remain undated, though some general conclusions can be hazarded.
The Symphony in D would appear to be the oldest of the works. One-quarter the length of the Symphony in F and roughly one-third the length of the other pair of symphonies on the album, its three movements pass by so quickly and formally (with only the most schematic and brief of developments) that they could almost be missed. Nevertheless, the opening Allegro, despite the ceremonial character of its first theme (with trumpets blazing) reveals the strong influence of. P. E. Bach, in its propulsive, mercurial rhythms, short melodic breath, and sudden harmonic shifts. Much the same can be said of the finale, while the Andante suddenly displays Italianate manners at their most basic, with a simple melody over an Alberti bass.
The Symphony in C from 1786 jumps abruptly into the sound world of the late Classical period. The complexity and time span of each movement has broadened dramatically, and the thematic material has gained genuine individuality. The Andante begins with a noble theme stated by a pair of clarinets in thirds, to which some pleasant touches of non-functional harmony are added when the orchestra enters. It ends abruptly on a seventh chord, much like e. P. E Bach's slow movements, and leads to a blandly energetic Minuet (this symphony is the only one on this album to follow the Austrian fourmovement model, instead of the older three-movement form derived from the Italian opera Sinfonia) that sandwiches a central section featuring flutes in an ethereal Gluck-like melody. The finale combines Bach again with Mannheim rockets, Italianate melodies for pairs of winds, and a preference for twoand occasionally three-part counterpoint that recalls Michael Haydn. Fascinating stuff.
Wolf must have had some extraordinary wind soloists at his disposal in Weimer. As much space as they get to exhibit their talents in the C-Major Symphony, the R-Major work provides still more. A pair of clarinets, and later, flutes, are featured prominently in the opening Allegro moderato, with thematic content offered in thirds, in counterpoint, or as solo with accompaniment. The sharp Bachian edges have been filed down with more recourse to development, though the extremely brief Andante movement remains a lyrical Italianate stub rather than a full participant in the symphonic process. The finale is an ingenious piece that incorporates a symphonic minuet and again recalls Bach's empfindsamer Stit (sensitive style), with the older master's unexpected harmonic shifts and wide, leaping figures adapted to the tastes of a later period.
The Symphony in F is the most elaborately composed work on this disc. By far the longest symphony of the group (24 minutes, as opposed to 7, 17, and 17), the Andante strides forward to center stage as the longest movement in the collection. It is a somber, haunting piece in typical AABA form that recalls Boccherini and the other Italians resident at the Spanish court, mixing Baroque and Classical elements with magisterial ease. Of all the selections on this release, it is this movement that stands out far above the rest. In an earlier phonographic era, Beecham would have cut a couple of repeats, slowed down matters appropriately for the tempo marking, and recorded it as prime lollipop material. Now we get it all, but at a pace that's too quick to let the weight and timbre of the music be fully felt.
This is my single complaint about Pasquet's conducting. Like quite a few other period specialists, he denies the period's composers the right to choose their own tempos. His faster movements are dynamically varied and convincingly performed (especially by the Weimer players' wind section) but rigidly paced, while his slow movements are only a shade less fast than everything else. Is it really a Romantic period anachronism to assume that when a composer writes andante, he genuinely wants something slower than moderato or allegretto?
The sound is crisp and nicely blended, avoiding the pitfalls of instrumentalists whose solos zoom out of nowhere to electronically dominate the proceedings. However, I do take issue with the banding that the producers of this album supply. The rallentando and seventh chord that concludes the C Major Symphony's andante is obviously intended as a quick lead-in to the minuet, but we have a six-second pause between cuts, instead. The liner notes don't live up to Naxos's usual standard, either. They're too generic, and poorly translated.
These caveats aside, this is an attractive release that once again demonstrates just how much fine compositional talent existed around the time of Haydn and Mozart that wasn't Haydn or Mozart. Let's hope for Volume 2.