About this Recording
8.573484 - MAYR, J.S.: Overtures (Bavarian Classical Players, Concerto de Bassus, Virtuosi Italiani, Hauk)
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Johann Simon Mayr (1763–1845)


Until into the 19th century, the purpose of the sinfonia opening a larger work—an oratorio or an opera—was to quieten the often noisy audience and make them attentive. As Hugo Botstilber wrote in his history of the overture: “The audience was interested primarily in the scenes of the opera in which the ‘star’ or stars appeared; it didn’t much care about anything else, least of all about the overture.” It was exceptional for there to be any connection with the action that followed. This explains why sinfonias sometimes served to introduce different stage works, though not, as a rule, in the same theatre.

Simon Mayr was familiar with the Venetian and Neapolitan operatic sinfonia traditions, the Venetian sinfonias being mostly in two parts, and the Neapolitan, as a rule, in three. Within this genre, Mayr tried to find his own solutions, which often only become apparent on close examination. The works recorded here span a period of some 25 years, giving us a good illustration of Mayr’s stylistic and compositional development. Mayr forged, in Italy, a style that began by mirroring that of the exponents of the Viennese Classicism who were his contemporaries, incorporated Italian cantabilità (songfulness) and semplicità (simplicity), and broadened out from manageable units to embrace large-scale overall structures.

“The sinfonias differ most from the style cultivated in Italy up to that time in their capriciosity. The development and conclusion of main themes is intentionally delayed by the insertion of little subsidiary ideas that are repeated to create tension. Then Mayr surprises his listener with unexpected intervals and modulations, with extremely loud passages juxtaposed with total voids. Then, like an echo heard in the far distance, Romantic horn calls may penetrate the unexpected silence. Sometimes there are horn solos at the beginning of movements as well, alternating with woodwind, so that the antiphony gives rise to whole wind concertos. The orchestral writing of these overtures flows along in an effective polyphony, beautiful solos for viola, cello and other inner parts are heard in a way that is most unusual for the period, combined with tranquil harmonies or lively counterpoint in the upper regions of the orchestra. Occasionally a slow section contains a lively intermezzo in a completely different tempo, played sul ponticello by the strings. Mayr’s overtures also serve up the Mannheim speciality of crescendo passages based on upbeat themes. (Hermann Kretschmar quoting from Geschichte der Ouvertüre und der freien Orchesterformen by Hugo Botstiber, Leipzig 1913, p. 141)

In his own score library, Mayr grouped his symphonies into the sub-categories of “Sinfonie grandi a più pezzi”, including works such as Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 8 by Ludwig van Beethoven or the late symphonies of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; “Sinfonie caratteristiche”, including Beethoven‘s Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ and the overture to Coriolanus or Gaetano Donizetti’s Sinfonia in D minor In morte di Capuzzi’; “Sinfonie Concertanti”, where individual instruments competed solistically; “Sinfonie ossia Aperture composte espressamente per l’unione filharmonica o mandate da’ div. Socj onorarj ed ordinarj”, i.e. works in a single movement written for the Unione Filharmonica that Mayr had founded; and “Sinfonie teatrali”, pieces opening a stage work, including compositions by Gaetano Donizetti, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Gioacchino Rossini, Luigi Cherubini and Carl Maria von Weber. Operatic overtures were also performed at the academies which often took place in theatres, such as for example at the “Grande Accademia vocale, ed instrumentale nel Teatro Giustiniani a San Moisè” in Venice on 10 March 1810. Alongside operatic arias and a wind concerto, each part included a sinfonia by Mayr; there was also a “Grande Sinfonia” by Ignaz Pleyel and the overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute.

The melodramma serio Raùl di Créqui was first heard on 26th December 1809 at La Scala in Milan. In the Maestoso of this sinfonia in D major the violin and cello take on solo roles. The Allegro has a striking fugal opening [1].

The compositions that follow show Mayr at the height of his success as a composer of Italian operas, his works having also gained popularity in the south, in Naples. In formal terms, the dimensions of the bipartite sinfonia have increased relative to the works composed around 1800, the orchestra has been enlarged to include trombones, a serpent and percussion, and the music is characterised by sections often inspired by folk music or marches. Mayr is mirroring Beethoven and Rossini.

For Cora, premièred on 26th March 1815 at San Carlo in Naples, Mayr not only adapted an opera libretto for which he had composed music previously, Alonso e Cora (premièred at La Scala, Milan, in 1803), he also reused, with a few alterations, the overture from his melodramma Tamerlano, which had first been staged at La Scala on 26th December 1812 [2].

It is a similar story with the sinfonia to Mennone e Zemira, which Mayr composed for San Carlo in Naples, then probably the most important theatre in Italy. Mennone was premièred on 22nd March 1817 [3].

Mayr composed the cantata Arianna a Nasso for a benefit concert at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples for the celebrated Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran. The concert took place in February 1815. The opening sinfonia in D major is based on the sinfonia to Mayr’s opera Le due duchesse, which had again been performed a year earlier at Milan’s La Scala, on 7th November 1814 [4].

The dramma per musica Ercole in Lidia received its première on 29th January 1803 at the Burgtheater in Vienna, but was also given on 3rd February 1803 at the Hoftheater. Knowing that he was in the city that had been home to the revered Classical triumvirate of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, Mayr clearly took considerable trouble over the sinfonia. The piece is in two parts, with a D major Allegro contrasting with the D minor Largo. The opening section is characterised by a sombre drum-roll that is later taken up by the strings, by tutti fanfares, and by an expressive sighing stepwise movement in the violins and cellos. The Allegro begins fugato with a theme characterised by octave leaps that Mayr had already used in his first opera, Saffo. As a particular surprise, Mayr incorporated a solo part for the harp, which is heard in dialogue with the oboes [5].

Gli Americani (sometimes known as Idalide) was first performed on 4th January 1806 at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. The three bars with pauses at the beginning of the sinfonia are reminiscent of Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute. In the Allegro section Mayr alludes to the main theme of the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 37, though he transposes it to E flat major [6].

Lauso e Lidia, a dramma per musica, was premièred at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice on 14th February 1798. One distinctive feature of the sinfonia that opens the opera is that it begins immediately with an effectively written Allegro in D major that seduces more by means of resounding triadic motifs and virtuosic élan than by means of compositional refinement [7].

A short introduction carried along by dotted rhythms opens the sinfonia to the oratorio La Passione, performed in 1794 in Forlì. The Allegro theme may be by Joseph Haydn, of whose works Mayr made a detailed study whilst he was a student in Venice [8].

In his early works in the genre Mayr experiments with formal conceptions. Following the example of the sinfonia to the oratorio Tobia, Mayr constructs the sinfonia to the farsa Il segreto, premièred on 24th September 1797 in San Moisè in Venice, in several parts: typical opening motifs like dotted rhythms or rolling appoggiaturas are combined with sections in which wind players take on a solo rôle, before a fast stretta brings the sinfonia to a close [9].

From the outset, instrumental solos played a major rôle in Mayr’s output. In der Sinfonia in B flat major, which was probably also composed before 1800, two violins compete in virtuosity, supported by strings, two oboes, bassoon and two horns—the forces for which Mayr‘s Venetian oratorios and many other sacred works of the period were written [10].

The Sinfonia in E flat major stands on its own. This short composition may be one of Mayr‘s early apprentice pieces in the genre and have been composed circa 1790 in Venice. Nevertheless, its very appearance of formlessness and the somewhat elementary treatment of motifs give this striking little work a charm of its own [11].

Franz Hauk
English translation by Susan Baxte

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