About this Recording
8.554764 - SPERGER: String Symphonies

Johannes Matthias Sperger (1750-1812)
Symphonies in C, F and B flat major

Johannes Matthias Sperger was among the more prolific composers of his time. Nevertheless his contemporary reputation rested largely on his abilities as a player of the double bass, an instrument for which he wrote eighteen concertos, as a performer using a five-string bass with various tunings. Born in Feldsberg, the modern Valtice, he apparently studied first there with the organist Franz Anton Becker, before moving to Vienna, where he was a double bass pupil of Friedrich Pichlberger, for whom, with the bass Franz Gerl, the first Sarastro, Mozart wrote his concert aria Per questa bella mano. Pichlberger was a member of Emanuel Schikaneder's orchestra and also took part in the first performances of The Magic Flute. Sperger took composition lessons from Beethoven's later teacher, Albrechtsberger, and made his début in Vienna with his own compositions at the age of eighteen. There are records of a performance of a symphony and a double bass concerto by Sperger in Vienna by the Tonkünstler-Sozietät on 20th December 1778 and the following year he became a member of the society. From 1777 until 1783 he served as a chamber musician in the musical establishment of the Cardinal Primate of Hungary, Prince Joseph von Batthyányi in Pressburg, the modern Bratislava and, as Pozsony, the then capital of the kingdom of Hungary, giving solo performances also at the Stadttheater in Brünn (Brno). The Pressburg orchestra included fifteen string-players, the oboists Johann and Philipp Teimer and the horn-players Karl Franz and Anton Böck, and there were string-players able to double on clarinets, bassoon and flute, as necessary. Trumpets and drums were also available, as usual in establishments of this kind. Sperger entered the service of Count Ladislav Erdödy at Fidisch in 1783, continuing there until his patron's death in 1786. In the following years he continued to appear as a soloist, travelling to various cities in Germany and in 1789 to Northern Italy. In 1788 he had played in Ludwigslust and the following year he was appointed to the musical establishment of the Grand Duke Friedrich Franz I of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, with its band of 21 musicians, continuing in this employment until his death in 1812, when he was commemorated by a performance, a fortnight after his death, of Mozart's Requiem.

Sperger wrote a large part of his music, his concertos, cassations, serenades and 45 symphonies, during the period he spent in Pressburg. The symphonies have survived in various forms. The simplest version of the Symphony in C majoris found in the Slovak scores of the Jesuit and Piarist establishment at Trenčín, amplified at Schwerin into a four-movement work with the addition of oboes and French horns and, in a third version, of trumpets and timpani. The Symphony in F majorand the Symphony in B flat major survive in an earlier version found at Pruské, and were also extended in later versions. The second of these was sent by Sperger in 1782 to the Bishop of Raabe and Prince Esterházy and was listed under the year 1777 as Sinfonia No.6in the composer's later catalogue of his compositions. This application was clearly in the course of a search for other employment, as Batthyányi's establishment and position were by then under threat from the Emperor. It might be added that there is no documentary evidence of any other connection between Sperger and the Esterházy musical establishment directed by Haydn. Among Sperger's symphonies is one that strangely mirrors Haydn's Farewell Symphony, for his musicians anxious to leave the relatively remote palace of Esterháza to rejoin their families. While Haydn's players went out one by one during the course of the work, Sperger's Grande Sinfonie in Fof 1796 starts with only two violins, joined gradually by other members of the orchestra until the full complement is present.

The three symphonies here included are all in three movements and scored, in these versions, for strings and continuo. The first, the Symphony in C major, offers an opening Allegro in the lucid style and form of the period. This is followed by a slow movement, marked Andante, its generally brighter mood contrasted with an excursion into the minor, a cloud that soon passes with the return of the material of the opening. The symphony ends with a Presto. The unison opening provokes an energetic reply, as the movement embarks on its rapid and episodic course.

The Symphony in F majorhas an imposing opening with a tripartite sonata-form movement that brings the usual contrasts of theme and a relatively turbulent central development section. The second movement is a Minuet, framing a Trio that allows changes of texture. The symphony ends with an Allegro that brings moments of excitement and variety in its well-crafted course, a challenge to the achievements of Mannheim.

Sperger's Symphony in B flat majorfollows what is now the established form in its first movement, making good use of dynamic contrasts and moments of silence, with turns of phrase that are instantly recognisable as part of the musical language of the time. Sperger follows precedent in starting the central development with a shift into a minor key, before the return of the first material in recapitulation. The second movement is a Minuet, in the statelier form that retains its association with the dance from which it takes its name. A delicately pointed Trio provides the necessary element of contrast. The last movement, marked Prestissimo, is one of some brilliance, an appropriate conclusion to the whole work. The repeated exposition has its own touches of drama and these are intensified in the central development. The work ends with the expected éclat.

Keith Anderson

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