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SACD Review

Symphonies of the Mozart Era

  • François-Joseph Gossec: Symphony in B Flat Major, Op. 6 #6 [20:59]
  • Johann Christian Bach: Symphony in E Major for Double Orchestra [13:58]
  • Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf: Symphony in C Major "The Four Ages of Man" [17:32]
  • Johann Baptist Vanhal:
  • Symphony in F Major [17:36] *
  • Symphony in G minor [17:46]
  • Antoine Mahaut: Symphony #4 in C minor for Strings [8:12]
  • Antonín Reicha: Symphony in E Flat Major [23:24]
  • Joseph Martin Kraus: Symphony in C minor [22:36]
Cappella Coloniensis/Hans-Martin Linde
* Cappella Coloniensis/Ulf Bjorlin
Capriccio 71110 2 Hybrid Multichannel SACDs 71:07 + 72:35
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Wolfgang Mozart and Franz Haydn are such towering musical figures of the Classical period that other composers of that era tend to be diminished to a historical footnote. However, dozens of composers of the Classical era were exceptional artists, and this 2-cd set by Capriccio titled "Symphonies of the Mozart Era" reveals a few of them.

In a sense, the Capriccio set competes with the Chandos "Contemporaries of Mozart" series. However, the Chandos series features a modern instrument orchestra while the Capriccio highlights the long-standing period instrument group Cappella Coloniensis that was formed in 1954. The differences in instrumentation make for entirely separate soundworlds, and I don't mind stating that my preference rests with period instruments, especially in the hands of a group as exceptional as the Cappella Coloniensis. Further, the Capriccio set is an SACD release in contrast to the standard CD format of the Chandos series with the exception of one SACD release for the Herschel Symphonies.

I should point out that the Capriccio release does not specify recording dates or venues. This leads me to believe that the recordings are not new. However, rest assured that the sound quality is state-of-the-art, even when played on a standard CD player. When turning to the SACD layer and multi-channel capabilities, the sonics are simply spectacular as the sound expands in all directions.

Capriccio has chosen eight high-quality symphonies of the Classical period that have stood the test of time. Each one is highly lyrical, expertly crafted, and possesses abundant energy and rhythmic flair. Fast outer movements are exuberant and exhilarating, while slow movements possess great charm, grace and lilting melodies. Here's a synopsis of the program:

Gossec's Symphony in B Flat Major – François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) is the most famous French composer associated with the French Revolution, his Requiem of great popularity during that period. Although technically of the Classical era, Gossec's music retains a significant baroque flavor as heard in his Symphony in B Flat Major. In five movements, the work is one of Gossec's finest and thoroughly charming and invigorating. The 1st Movement Allegro molto is assertive and optimistic with strong undercurrents from the lower strings. The 2nd Movement Larghetto is a beautiful piece of grace and lyricism with motifs built on top of one another. A very short and poignant Largo con sordini gives way to the 4th Movement Fuga having compelling upper voice suspensions; this is the most baroque of the five movements and offers the most tension as well. The last movement contains two minuets; the first is highly ceremonial while the second finds the strings stretching outward enticingly. Gossec's Symphony in B Flat Major is certainly an excellent calling-card for the remainder of the program.

J.C. Bach's Symphony in E Major for Double Orchestra – After Mozart, J.C. Bach (1735-1782) is my favorite composer of the Classical era. I love his music for its dignity, confident demeanor, wealth of melodic invention and the natural flow of musical arguments. Further, he was a very economical composer with a minimum of notes and phrases used to resolve his musical reasoning. All these exceptional qualities are to be found in his Symphony in E Major: the stately 1st Movement Allegro, a beautifully flowing and regal 2nd Movement Andante and a 3rd Movement Minuetto of stunning buoyancy.

Vanhal's Symphonies in F Major and G minor – Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813) was born in Bohemia, migrated to Vienna where he studied under Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf and became one of Europe's leading composers in the 1760's. From the two programmed symphonies, I'd like to key on three of the movements. One is the 2nd Movement Cantabile of the Symphony in F Major which is a gorgeous piece as expressive and uplifting as anything else written by the composer. The 3nd Movement Minuetto is another winner; its confidence and rhythmic lift are infectious. Of special mention is the 2nd Movement Andante of the Symphony in G minor. It begins with a violin solo over a simple accompaniment that is soon taken over by a viola solo that eventually results in unison playing from both stringed instruments. In addition to being the only music on the set that is dominated by solo contributions, the piece is ample evidence that there is nothing more beautiful than the sound of period strings played expertly and with minimal vibrato.

Ditterdorf's Symphony in C Major – Of all the leading composers of the Classical era, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) seems to receive the least respect from the classical music community. However, when he was at the top of his game, Dittersdorf's music was quite enjoyable and memorable. Unfortunately, he also had a penchant for writing some pedestrian material. The Symphony in C Major has elements of both; the first three movements are highly entertaining while the last movement is of the throw-away variety. Dittersdorf offers an unusual 1st Movement Larghetto of a strongly ceremonial nature followed by the 2nd Movement Allegro vivace that streaks across the sky with wild abandon. In the 3rd Movement Minuetto con garbo, the composer takes on a stern demeanor with sharp phrasing and assertive ascending lines. But it all falls apart in the war-like 4th Movement Finale replete with military drum beats and slashing rhythms; here, Dittersdorf engages in a ridiculous degree of repetition of uninspired musical lines. Still, there is much to enjoy in the first three movements.

Mahaut's Symphony #4 in C minor – Antoine Mahaut (c. 1720-1785), by virtue of his birth date and musical personality, composed in the baroque fashion. His Symphony #4 is a fine example of his style with its "sonata da camera" construction. The 1st Movement is a fugue, the 2nd a siciliano and the 3rd has the properties of a Bourrée. Overall, it is a fine work of excellent lyricism and natural flow that ends all too quickly in eight minutes. I should report that Mahaut eventually found a home at a monastery in France. However, his religious motivation might have been slight, as he was being hounded by creditors from Amsterdam just prior to his conversion.

Reicha's Symphony in E Flat Major – The backward-looking Mahaut symphony is followed by the most forward-looking symphony on the program, Reicha's Symphony in E Flat Major. Actually, Antonín Reicha (1770-1836) occupies the time period bridging the gap between the Classical and Romantic periods. In Reicha's music, as with his contemporaries including Hummel and Spohr, the perfection of form so treasured in Mozart's time shares priority with a greater freedom of and depth of expression as well as the more extensive treatment of thematic development. The Symphony in E Flat Major begins with an emotionally rich Largo-Allegro spiritoso having contrasts of mood, tempo and dynamics rarely found in the symphonies of the Classical period. The 2nd Movement Adagio continues to impress with its priority on contrast, and Reicha's exceptional lyricism is ever present. The 3rd Movement Allegro has an infectious rhythmic swing, while the 4th Movement Un poco vivo begins in a cheerful fashion but soon takes on a fierce disposition as Reicha once again makes 'contrast' an integral part of his musical vocabulary. This is an exceptional symphony and further evidence that Reicha infrequently disappoints.

Kraus' Symphony in C minor – Born in Germany, Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792) moved to Sweden at the age of twenty-two to apply for a position at the court of King Gustav III. After three years of barely making a living, he was finally noticed and accepted by the Royal Court, attaining the post of director of the Royal Academy of Music. Kraus is often referred to as the "Swedish Mozart", and the fact that he was born in the same year as Mozart and died just one year after Mozart surely plays a part in the designation. His three-movement Symphony in C minor, one of his finest and most demonstrative in the genre, begins with a dramatic Larghetto that settles into a tension-laden Allegro. The 2nd Movement Andante is a stately affair somewhat lacking in melodic distinction compared to the other slow movements of the set. In the 3rd Movement Allegro assai, Kraus combines aggressive declarations with lyrical passages in a most appealing manner.

Don's Conclusions: This mid-priced Capriccio set has much to offer: some of the finest music of the Classical era played in convincing period-instrument fashion with superb sonic features. Indeed, the set is a musical feast for those who love orchestral music from this time period. I personally find the Bach, Vanhal and Reicha offerings the most enjoyable with the others not far behind. Since each symphony on the program is a gem, I urge readers to consider Capriccio's exceptional set of "Symphonies of the Mozart Era".

Copyright © 2007, Don Satz