About this Recording
GP680 - VANHAL, J.B.: 3 Neue Caprice-Sonaten, Op. 31 / 3 Caprices, Op. 36 (Tsalka)
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Johann Baptist Vaňhal (1739–1813)
Keyboard Capriccios


Born in Nechanice, Bohemia and trained to become a Kapellmeister by local musicians such as Anton Erban and Mathias Nowák, Johann Baptist Vaňhal¹ moved in 1761 to Vienna, where he rapidly developed a reputation as virtuoso violinist, voice and keyboard pedagogue, and prolific composer. In the 1760s he met with the young Mozart, Gluck, Dittersdorf, and Haydn. Similarly to Haydn, Vaňhal played a central rôle in the development of Viennese instrumental music during the 1770s. Between 1760 and 1780 he composed no less than a hundred string quartets and seventy symphonies.² In the 1980s and 1990s musicologists Alexander Weinmann and Paul Bryan compiled thematic catalogues of Vaňhal’s works; these important first steps in recovering some of the richness of his output are resulting now in a new electronic catalogue for researchers and performers created by the Johann Baptist Wanhal Association³, and in new editions and recordings of several of the symphonies, string quartets, string and woodwind concertos and chamber works.4

Vaňhal’s numerous symphonies range from early experimental works, which fuse features of the composer’s Baroque heritage with the new “Sturm und Drang” style, to more standardised works in four movements, composed during the 1770s. His first movements tend to have expansive and contrasting thematic ideas, slow introductions and relatively long developments. Starting in the 1770s, his symphonic works and string quartets were admired and performed in Vienna, Paris, Prague, Dresden, London, Italy, Boston and Philadelphia.5 A devout Christian, Vaňhal also composed numerous Masses, psalms, cantatas, and motets for the church. Vaňhal’s religious works include forty-eight Masses.

During the late 1770s Vaňhal reacted to the depressed financial capabilities of the Viennese nobility, who could no longer afford to keep their own private musical establishments, by composing fewer symphonies and string quartets. In the 1780s he began to publish for Artaria, Hummel, Eder, and Sauer numerous keyboard compositions, songs, duos, and trios of various difficulty. These publications were mostly purchased by the expanding middle class.6 Vaňhal’s solo keyboard works (approximately four hundred) include simple one-page lessons, intermediate-level sonatinas, brief programmatic compositions and ambitious sonatas, fantasias, sets of variations, and capriccios conceived for the professional player. These works were often dedicated to students and patrons. He must have been a popular teacher, for he had numerous students, ranging from wealthy noble patronesses to serious pupils who later became famous players, such as Carl Czerny and Ignaz Pleyel.7

In the 1770s and 1780s the line between keyboard works conceived for professional and amateur players was often difficult to draw. Vaňhal’s reputation as a composer of serious works suffered after 1790, especially among German critics. Around 1814, Ernst Ludwig Gerber complained in his Neues Historisch-Biographisches Lexikon about the reduced format of those keyboard variations and sonatinas composed during the last years of his life. Gerber was quick to add, however, that Vaňhal’s style had lost none of its spirit or artistic qualities.8

A perhaps more objective assessment of Vaňhal’s accomplishments as a keyboard composer was set forth by Czech contemporary writer Johann Gottfried Dlabacz (1758–1820), who in 1795 visited Vaňhal on repeated occasions to interview him:9

He has already lived in Vienna for more than 50 years…(H)e has mainly occupied himself with teaching young musical nobility and creating various keyboard compositions for the use of students, of whom he has guided several to fairly good progress in playing the piano and composition. The public has, from time to time, received from him a considerable number of very beautiful piano sonatas, variations, caprices and other essays which have been accorded the undivided approbation of all connoisseurs as well as amateurs. 10

Most of Vaňhal’s sonatas and sonatinas (circa 150) are in three movements: the first movements are in sonata form with contrasting thematic areas. The second movements display eloquent musical gestures. The third movements are usually in binary or rondo forms, and are often inspired in Baroque dances. Musicologists such as Alfred Einstein and Margarethe von Dewitz11 were convinced that many of Vaňhal’s sonatas were comparable in quality to those of Haydn, Mozart and Kraus. Vaňhal world specialists Allan Badley and Paul Bryan have sustained this perspective more recently and, in the Johann Baptist Wanhal Association webpage, Bryan states:

Vaňhal was one of the leading composers of the era of Classicism and the earliest stages of Romanticism. His compositions were performed throughout the world and numerous printed editions of his works appeared in his lifetime. Boldly original and possessed of formidable powers of invention, Vaňhal was highly regarded by his professional colleagues, including Haydn and Mozart both of whom performed his works…12

He was particularly original and improvisatorial in his multi-movement capriccios, which he sometimes referred to as “Caprice-Sonaten”. During the 1780s he composed in quick succession several sets, including Op. 6 (later republished as Op. 14 and Op. 35), Op. 7 (republished as Op. 15 and Op. 36), Op. 31 and Op. 33. Each of these publications presented three works, sometimes with programmatic titles. In the later opuses, the composer often indicated in the scores that the capriccios were to be performed without pauses.13

The present recording includes two sets of Vaňhal’s Capriccios, Op. 31 and Op. 36 (originally Op. 7). Their elegant but energetic—at times even symphonic—compositional style seems an ideal medium to introduce modern audiences to the beautiful expressive diversity of Vaňhal’s keyboard works. Capriccio II in E flat Major, Op. 36, for example, initiates with a slow and pensive Adagio, which is immediately succeeded by an explosive, festive Allegro (Track 13). Stock gestures of the Classical symphonic idiom such as long crescendi over sustained tremolo effects, cascades of ascending and descending scales, and long virtuosic sixteenth-note passages characterize this section. The Allegro’s dolce contrasting second ideas brim with melodic charm and sighing-figures. The final movement, a Rondo Allegro (Track 14), quickly reveals its Baroque ties in its elegant dance-like quality, contrapuntal interplay, and charming ornamentation.

To my knowledge no other recording of Vaňhal’s numerous keyboard sonatas, capriccios, fantasias, or variation sets has been released by a commercial label. This recording could raise the awareness among the musical community of the merits and originality of Vaňhal’s keyboard compositions. Allan Badley, one of the co-founders of Artaria Editions in New Zealand, also plans in 2015 a release of a volume dedicated to Vaňhal’s capriccios. These works are vital to our understanding of the creative diversity and richness of the Viennese Classical style. I am certain that this recording and a new edition of Vaňhal’s capriccios will raise much interest among the musical community.

Michael Tsalka

¹ Also spelled Waṅhal (the spelling the composer himself and at least one of his publishers used), Wanhal, Wanhall, Vanhal and Van Hall. See Paul Bryan, “Vanhal, Johann Baptist [Jan Křtitel]” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (New York: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2001), 19:592.
² See Paul Bryan, Johann Wanhall, Viennese Symphonist: His Life and His Musical Environment, Stuyvesant: Pendragon Press (1997).
³ This interactive research catalogue is currently under construction. See “Research Catalogue,” Johann Baptist Wanhal Association, http://www.wanhal.org/research-catalogue (accessed September 3, 2014).
4 These include four recordings of the symphonies [Naxos 8.554341, 8.554138, 8.557815, and 8.554761], three violin concertos [Naxos 8.557815], the Missa Pastoralis and Missa Solemnis [Naxos 8.555080] and three of the Flute Quartets, Op. 7 [Naxos 8.570234].
5 Paul Bryan, Johann Wanhall, Viennese Symphonist, xiv–xv.
6 Bryan, 32.
7 Pleyel studied with Vaňhal as a young boy and teenager, during the 1760s. Starting in 1772, he became a pupil of Haydn in Eisenstadt.
8 Ernst Ludwig Gerber, “Wanhal (Johann)”, Neues Historisch-Biographisches Lexikon. 4th vol., Leipzig: 1814, 508–9.
9 Unlike Mozart, Vaňhal was not in the habit of keeping a list of his compositions. It is to Dlabacz that we owe the first catalogue of his works.
10 Johann Gottfried Dlabacz, ”Wanhal, Johann Baptist,” Künstler-Lexikon, 1815, translated in Paul Bryan, Johann Wanhall, Viennese Symphonist, 6.
11 Margarethe von Dewitz, Jean Baptiste Vanhal, Leben und Klavierwerke: Ein Beitrag zur Wiener Klassik. Munich: Druck der Salesianischen Offizin, 1933.
12 Paul Bryan, ”Johann Baptist Wanhal (1739–1813)”, Johann Baptist Wanhal Association, http://www.wanhal.org/wanhal (accessed November 19, 2013).
13 In Trois caprises pour le clavecin ou piano forte, Op. 15, Berlin: J. J. Hummel (circa 1786), for example, the composer presents improvisatorial bridges between each capriccio.

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