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Peter Branscombe
Early Music America, December 2005

Ernst Wilhelm Wolf (1735-1792) is yet another comparatively unknown symphonist brought to attention by Naxos in their important progress through the back woods of the early Classical period. The four symphonies chosen here (from a sizable output) are certainly ear-catching, if more seldom mind-swaying. The E-flat piece, which comes first, produces fascinating sonorities from a sizeable wind group; the one in F is marked by haunting slow passages within a basic allegro; along among the four, the symphony in C major contains a minuet movement. These are keenly shaped performances under Nicholas Pasquet, with well balanced and expressive playing from the Weimer musicians (Wolf was Kapellmeister there from 1772, and obviously had talented players to work with). These cleanly recorded, atmospheric works are very welcome.

David Hurwitz, October 2005

The classical period was one of those moments in history where the style itself was so powerful that composers of relatively modest ability, with a little luck and few good ideas, could write some outstanding music. Ernst Wilhelm Wolf's Symphony in F is an excellent example of this phenomenon. A resident composer active in Weimar, Wolf (1732-92) composed about 35 symphonies, of which 26 survive. Like Handel's organ concertos, they were written primarily for use as overtures and intermezzos during theatrical productions, and the short D major symphony, with trumpets and drums, clearly gives evidence of this provenance. The other three works, whether in three or four movements, are larger in scale, and certainly are rich enough in content to warrant an independent concert life.

The above-named F major symphony is particularly impresive in this regard, opening with a moody and tightly integrated Allegro and featuring a very ample central Andante in a minor key with gorgeous writing for solo winds. It's just very good music. Elsewhere you will also hear characterful ideas, artfully presented, as in the charming string pizzicatos in the E-flat major symphony's second-movement Allegretto, or the C major symphony's double minuet. The Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra of Weimar under Nicolás Pasquet plays all four works with freshness and style, and the important contributions of the solo winds are uniformly outstanding. Wolf may not have been a great or important figure in the larger sense, but he had talent, and these very well-recorded performances show him off to excellent effect. At the Naxos price, you simply can't go wrong."

Barry Brenesal

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.

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