Music: Sounds for Summer

Wailing cries of impending financial doom resound within the classical music business. Yet never before has such a cornucopia of recorded music been available, while each month more releases of music pour forth that, until few years ago, one had no hope of hearing. The labels suffering the most are those still endlessly replicating the basic repertoire. Are they finally discovering that music lovers have no need of another average performance of a Beethoven symphony? Clearly labels such as Chandos and Naxos are prospering because they explore repertoire off the beaten path. For your summer enjoyment here is a potpourri of some interesting recent releases.

The last half of the 18th century is a particularly inviting period to explore. The best music of the period is so refreshingly lucid and luminescent that it will cut through the heaviest humidity. Mozart is the ideal, but, on a more human plane, other composers achieved marvels as well. Naxos and Chandos have set out to mine these treasures: Naxos with its series of “18th Century Concertos and Symphonies” and Chandos with its “Contemporaries of Mozart” series. The music they offer is uniformly fun, engaging, vivacious, and teeming with ideas. During this time the modern orchestra was taking shape and beginning to stretch its limbs in new-found symphonic forms. The music has the freshness of discovery and a sprightly sense of adventure.

For instance, the clarinet was an 18th century invention, and two composers who particularly delighted in its sonorities were Carl Stamitz (17451801), son of the Mannheim master Johann Stamitz, and Franz Krommer (1759-1831). Naxos offers Stamitz’s first of eleven solo works in this genre, along with an exhilarating double clarinet concerto and one for clarinet and bassoon, ably performed by various soloists and the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia. Stamitz also wrote more than fifty symphonies, four of which Chandos offers with the London Mozart Players under Matthias Bamert [CHAN 9358]. These delightful works are closer in spirit to the earlier Mannheim school of his father than the emerging world of Mozart and Beethoven, but no less attractive for that.

Stamitz’s younger contemporary, Krommer, was particularly adept at writing for wind instruments. Should your summer dinner party need a cool breeze, try his Partitas for Wind Ensemble (Harmonie-Musik) written for just such occasions, available on Naxos [8.553498] with the Budapest Wind Ensemble. Krommer’s more serious but no less delightful clarinet concertos show that he was listening to Beethoven as well as Mozart. Harmonia Mundi’s midpriced Musique d’Abord supplies the Concerto for Two Clarinets, Op. 35, Clarinet Concerto, Op. 36, and a two-clarinet concerto by Franz Hoffmeister. It would be hard to imagine anyone playing these delectable works better than the father/daughter team of Walter and Anne Boeykens, with the New Chamber Orchestra of Belgium. The adagio in Krommer’s two-clarinet concerto is absolutely spellbinding. Krommer also produced at least nine symphonies. Chandos offers premier recordings of Symphonies Op. 40 and Op. 102, with the same forces as on the Stamitz CD. These two works are far more substantial than Stamitz’s, and are charged with the kind of exciting drama and expressive shading that lets you know that Beethoven was already on the scene.

Antonio Rosetti (1750-1792) was a Bohemian court composer who Italianized his name, apparently for public relations purposes. He need not have worried; Rosetti’s music speaks for itself with extraordinary rhythmic verve, pertness, and melodic distinction. The Teldec and Chandos labels have released four symphonies each [Teldec 4509-98420-2 and CHAN 9567] without duplicating any of the works. Teldec’s Concerto Köln play with great energy, perhaps driving the music a little hard, but the effect is bracing and the dynamic contrasts startling. The London Mozart Players on Chandos sound more congenial and relaxed in its approach, giving the works more Viennese warmth. Either way, this is very arresting and engaging music.

Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792) was Mozart’s exact contemporary and, like him, lived barely thirty-six years. Kraus may have enjoyed only limited success in his adopted Sweden, but he is one of the few composers of the time who need not be spoken of as existing in Mozart’s shadow. Naxos has released an extraordinary bargain CD containing Kraus’s Olympie Overture and three of his symphonies, vigorously played by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Petter Sundkvist. Behind this gripping, passionate music, one immediately senses the presence of a forceful personality and a first-class musical intelligence. Haydn was extremely perceptive in his musical judgments, and he said of the Symphony in C minor that it “will be regarded as a masterpiece for centuries to come; believe me, there are few people who can compose something like that.” If you do not believe him, listen as well to the galvanizing Olympie Overture, as brilliant a piece of this sort as the very finest of its time. This is a major release and simply not to be missed.

The name of Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831) has lived on in posterity because of the piano manufacturing firm he founded in Paris. Yet in his day, his was a name to conjure with. When Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf published his quartets, he was complimented by being told that they could rival even Pleyel’s. It was not an idle compliment, since Pleyel’s works had received even Mozart’s praise. Pleyel was, in fact, one of the most wildly popular composers in Europe and the New World—so much so that the small town of Nantucket, Massachusetts, sported a Pleyel Society formed “to chasten the taste of auditors.” (Would that there were such salutary institutions today.) Of Pleyel’s forty-one symphonies, Chandos gives the premier recordings of three, again with Bamert and the London Mozart Players. These scintillating, beguiling works must have made Pleyel’s teacher, Haydn, proud. (In fact, several works originally attributed to Haydn were subsequently discovered to have been Pleyel’s.)

Mozart said that Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) was his best student. The ongoing boomlet in Hummel recordings confirms Mozart’s high regard. CRISIS Publication Committee member Stephen Hough touched off the Hummel revival ten years ago with his extraordinary recordings of Hummel’s Piano Concertos, Op. 85 and Op. 89, on the Chandos label [CHAN 8505]. Chandos now continues the series with the Piano Concerto Op. 113, the Concertino, Op. 73, and the Gesellschafts-Rondo, Op. 117, beautifully performed by pianist Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players. Here is the same singing line as Mozart, the same operatic orchestral accompaniments, and an almost equal talent for themes of deceptive simplicity and exquisite beauty. The Op. 113 created such a sensation at one performance that the entire work was played as an encore. The Concertino is a transcribed concerto for mandolin and, while lightweight, is charm itself. This release is self-recommending to anyone who has heard Hummel’s other works.

More Hummel piano works are available on two mid-priced labels. Opus [91 2633-2 131] offers two works: the nearly half-hour long Fantasie, Op. 18, a very fine Schubertian work that helps us understand why Schubert would dedicate his last three piano sonatas to Hummel, and the Mozartian Piano Concerto, Op. 44. One could imagine a better performance of the Fantasie, but it is a thrill to hear these works. Joanna Trzeciak gives very fine performances of a selection of Hummel’s solo piano works, including Caprice, Op. 49; Rondo, Op 11; Polonaise, Op. 55; La Bella Capricciosa; and other pieces. This Pavane CD [ADW 7359] makes a fine supplement to the indispensable recordings of Hummel’s six piano sonatas, played by Ian Hobson on the Arabesque label, and also shows the side of Hummel that influenced Chopin so profoundly.

According to musicologist Dr. Joseph Braunstein, Hummel’s Masses “represent Hummel’s best creative efforts and stand after the Masses of Beethoven and Schubert as the finest contribution to the musica sacra in Austria prior to the advent of Anton Bruckner.” Thanks to Koch Schwann, we can now hear Hummel’s Mass, Op. 80, along with the Graduale, Op. 88, and the Offertorium, Op. 89, performed by the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno and the Orchestra of the Vienna Academy, with various soloists, under Martin Haselbock. If you think Hummel is all delicacy and elegance, the martial vigor of this work will be a surprise. The influential Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung found the Mass “exquisite” and “composed in the spirit and manner of J. Haydn without sacrificing originality.” This is true enough, but it is the Haydn of the Mass In Time of War that we hear. Brass and timpani predominate, but the martial tenor is tempered by marvelous lyricism. This is a major work.

If your summer is long enough, you can continue your explorations of the late 18th century with the wonderful symphonies of Johann Vanhal [Chandos CHAN 9607]; Leopold Hofmann [Naxos 8.553866]; Georg Wagenseil [Arkadia CDAK 130.1]; and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach [Naxos 8.553285]; or you can simply keep listening and pretend that summer never ends.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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