, December 2006
Naxos continues to explore lesser known Classical repertoire.
My 1922 complete edition of Grove’s‘Dictionary of Music and Musicians’does not even have an entry for Vaňhal which goes to demonstrate how for many years his music fell out of favour. However, interest in Vaňhal and his contemporaries has clearly increased greatly as a quick check in the latest edition of ‘Grove Music Online’ reveals a substantial amount of biographical information including a works list.
Vaňhal was born in Nechanice, Bohemia in 1739 out of Czech peasant stock who were indentured to the Schaffgotsch estates. Despite his unprivileged beginnings He was taught to sing and to play various string, keyboard and wind instruments. Soon he was able to provide for himself by working as an organist and as a choirmaster in local townships. Vaňhal found himself a wealthy sponsor when the Countess Schaffgotsch became aware of his talents and persuaded him to move to Vienna around 1760.
In Vienna he obtained lessons from the eminent violinist and composer Karl von Dittersdorf, who as an associate of the distinguished composers Haydn and Gluck, was extremely well connected. A highly prolific composer it was said that Vaňhal was the first composer to earn his living entirely from writing and performing music and eventually his music became much admired was widely performed. Around the 1760s to 1780s he had become established as one of the foremost composers in the important musical centre of Vienna.
It is said that Vaňhal was an accomplished violinist but not of a virtuoso standard such as his contemporaries Dittersdorf and Hoffman. For a time Vaňhal toured extensively around Europe and moved in the most exalted of musical circles.. This is born out by the popular anecdote that at a recital in Vienna in 1784, that was organised by the composer Stephen Storace, Vaňhal played the cello in a true ‘superstar’ string quartet line-up, with Haydn as the first violin; Von Dittersdorf as second violin and Mozart on viola.
Having had the financial resources to break free from the indentures of his families serfdom and to achieve considerable fame in his chosen vocation, for the final thirty or so years of his life, it seems that Va?hal progressively withdrew from public life and died in Vienna in 1813.
Va?hal wrote an extremely large number of compositions, in a wide range of genres, many of which have not survived. To give an indication of the extent of his substantial output, he has been attributed with writing around 34 symphonies; 94 string quartets; over 100 trios; 48 masses, 20 keyboard concertos, as well as 17 violin concertos plus a large amount of other works. Evidently Alexander Weinmann in 1988 managed to catalogue Va?hal scores. However, the challenging nature of the sources is such that it seems rare to obtain exact composition dates.
In addition to his renowned prowess on the violin and also, I understand, the cello Va?hal evidently played several other instruments. He wrote a substantial amount of concertos, including many for woodwind, and it seems highly likely that he was able to play many of the various wind instruments to a reasonable standard. An attractive recent release on Talent Records DOM 2910 75 of Concertos for Clarinet; Oboe; Bassoon and two Bassoons demonstrates Va?hal’s clear understanding and predilection for woodwind writing, as well as that for the violin.
In October 1777 Mozart wrote to his father that he had given a performance of Va?hal’s Violin Concerto in B flat in the Heilig-Kreuz church at Augsburg to “universal applause”. Mozart knew the violin well and had by 1775 composed five violin concertos. It seems inconceivable that Mozart would have played a concerto that he considered to be less than an excellent in standard.
The three violin concertos contained on this disc were all thought to have been composed earlier than 1775. All three follow a similar pattern in a three movement layout that contains an opening Allegro moderato; a central Adagio and a closing Allegro. The motifs are reasonably attractive and the composer develops them with skill and imagination. It seems an unfair comparison to make but when compared to the genius of his younger contemporary Mozart, Va?hal’s music is without the same warmth, the depth of expression, the variety and memorability, with orchestral accompaniment that tends to be rather spare.
The opening work on the release is the Violin Concerto in G major which at 27 minutes is the longest of the three. One is immediately struck by the virtuosic writing that Takako Nishizaki takes in her stride. The music takes the listener in its slipstream giving the illusion that it should be played with a quicker tempo.. I experienced the slow movement as stylish, passionate and tender in character.. The closing movement is given a rather measured pace and in the virtuosic passages at 2:18-2:44 and 9:10-9:51 one feels that the music needs to propel itself forward.. Placed towards the conclusion of the movement at 9:59-10:56 the cadenza is delightfully played by Nishizaki.
Va?hal uses the same key of G major in the next Violin Concerto on the release. One notices the attractiveness of the main subjects and the melodic and fluid cadenza at 5:57-6:45 is impressively performed by Nishizaki.. The slow central movement, similar in nature to that of the opening concerto, is in Nishizaki’s hands affectionate and yearning. I found the playing in final movement Allegro light and high spirited. Here Nishizaki’s tempo is reasonably swift and her dexterity in the extended passagework between 3:54-4:53 is exemplary. I thoroughly enjoyed the spirited, robust and highly virtuosic cadenza at 5:02-5:52.
The final score on the release is the exhilarating and lyrical Violin Concerto in B flat major. With the exception of the orchestral opening Va?hal makes his soloist work hard being almost fully occupied. The first and second motifs are attractive and extensively developed and the main subject is featured in the cadenza at 7:22-8:13. Va?hal has lost all sense of high spirits in the rather serious disposition of the Adagio movement that is given a graceful and languid reading by Nishizaki. A swift and stately pace in the closing movement Allegro from Nishizaki in melodies that have a certain Vivaldi-like character. There are some excellent bravura episodes but nothing to overtax a soloist of Nishizaki’s standard. The brief cadenza at 7:00-7:35 is highly appealing.
Helmut Müller-Brühl and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra provide Takako Nishizaki with high quality accompaniment throughout using modern instruments with period performance practice. The sound quality from the Naxos engineers is vivid with just a hint of sharpness evident with the horn. As an expert on late 18th and early 19th century music and a specialist of Va?hal’s Viennese contemporaries: Haydn; Mozart and Beethoven, Allan Badley’s credentials are impeccable and his booklet notes are most authoritative.
I can’t imagine Va?hal being anything other than overjoyed by the superb playing of Takako Nishizaki on this captivating and invigorating disc..