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ClassicsOnline Home » VANHAL: Symphonies, Vol. 4
The symphonies of Johann Baptist Vaňhal are among the most important works of the classical period. Bold and imaginative, powerful and lyrical, Vaňhal’s symphonies are only now beginning to win wider recognition as the masterpieces they are. This recording features his early and highly prophetic Symphony in E minor as well as one of his later works, the brilliantly-scored Symphony in C (Bryan C17) which Haydn is known to have admired.
By Julian Haylock
By Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
By David Denton
Johann Baptist Vaňhal (1739-1813)
Symphonies, Vol. 4
Johann Baptist Vaňhal was one of the most popular and successful Viennese composers during his lifetime. History, however, has been unkind to his reputation, the result of irresponsible statements that were made by imaginative authors who were not acquainted with him or his circumstances. The general impression is that he was melancholy and depressed when, in truth, he appears to have been basically happy and personable. Wild claims have also been made that early in his career he was so overcome by madness caused by religious fervour that he burned some of his music. After that, the story goes, the quality of compositions deteriorated so much that he never realised the promise of his early works. The lie to this assertion is given by the splendid symphonies included here; his vitality and inventiveness are evident in all of them and illustrate why he was considered such an important exponent of the genre.
The Sinfonia in E minor (Bryan e3), is one of Vaňhal's earliest symphonies and may have been composed about 1760-62. The use of the minor mode is unusual for the time and shows that Vaňhal's fascination with the expressive possibilities of the turbulent minor-key style existed from the outset of his professional career. It permeates the entire first movement, the Menuetto, and most of the last movement, a lively Contratanz in which one might logically expect the brightness of the major mode.
The style of the opening bar in a symphony, whether it opens with a vigorous forte or a quiet, singing piano, does much to determine its effect. The former seems to be indicated by both of the sources used in the creation of the edition used here, but there is also stylistic evidence to suggest that this may be one of the first examples of Vaňhal composing a symphony with a quiet, singing opening that continues as sustained-style melodic material, a conscious move away from the forte rhythmic openings typical of his earliest works. Another interesting aspect of the Sinfonia in E minor is the canonic Menuetto which accentuates the severity of the minor mode. The Trio, however, is a perfect foil with its gentle homophonic textures and prominent flute parts. Vaňhal's originality as a composer is also evident in his choice of finale, a Contratanz, a popular movement found in numerous serenades and divertimenti but lent an unusual character in this instance by being cast in the minor mode. Furthermore, the pianissimo ending of the movement enhances the sudden mood of E major that buoyantly energizes the final section of the Contratanz, and it brings the last movement, Kehraus-like, to its expected rousing conclusion.
The Sinfonia in C major (Bryan C1), composed between 1763-1765, must have been one of Vaňhal's best known symphonies because it is listed in six contemporary catalogues and eighteen manuscript copies of it survive. Furthermore, it was published in Paris and London, but, apparently, it was little known in Bohemia. The reasons for its popularity are not difficult to surmise. It is brightly and effectively orchestrated and at times Vaňhal even uses the wind choir independently of the strings to produce the full sound of the modern orchestra.
At this period of his career as a composer of symphonies Vaňhal was experimenting with structure. C1, for example, is one of a pair of symphonies (along with A5) whose first movements are based on a simple motive that is introduced in the first bar and extended into a three-bar 'theme'. Rather in the manner of a ritornello, this theme launches all of the major structural phases of the movement including both the development and recapitulation sections. The germ-motive is also used in developmental passages and as the basis for other figures. The movement has enough thematic components for a complete sonata form structure although it lacks the full-size piano-cantabile theme encountered in the composer's later symphonies. The movement, with its constant and resourceful employment of the opening motive, reveals Vaňhal's early interest in composing highly-organized music in the modern symphonic style. The remarkable second-movement Andante is canonic throughout with most of the action occurring between the first and second violins. An interesting feature is that the points of imitation constantly change in diminution from three to two bars, to one bar, to 1/2 + 1/2 bar, and finally to a unison-octave in bar 17. The Trio, played by the strings, also has something special to offer; a rather long chorale-like melody with irregular phrases that looks as though it might be a chant melody rather like those occasionally employed by Haydn. If so, the source of the non-modal melody has not yet been identified. The finale is serious; playful but not tuneful because of the fragmentary nature of the melodic material. It is busy and in constant motion except for cadences at the ends of the exposition and development. The dynamics are interruptive and in spite of the fact that a large proportion of the movement is marked piano, there is no piano-cantabile melody. As it scampers to its conclusion, it is the perfect complement to the slow second movement and the chorale-style of the Trio.
The Sinfonia in C major (Bryan C17), is one of Vaňhal's later symphonies, composed in all probability between 1775 and 1778. It is listed in two eighteenth-century catalogues and seven manuscript copies of the work have been found in private archives, including Prince Esterházy's, which means that it was performed by Joseph Haydn.
The style of the symphony's first movement shows that it follows the tradition of the 'Overture style', i.e. predominantly forte and constantly moving, composed of short, active and fragmentary figures strung together in irregular phrases with limited contrast of piano or cantabile-style melodic material. The movement is based on two figures both of which are presented in the opening bar. A close derivative is also prominently featured in both the second movement and the finale, giving a cyclic effect to the entire symphony. Vaňhal's assured handling of the orchestra is evident in the variety of textures and sounds he employs in the course of the movement and above all in the detail of the orchestration. His sensitive orchestration is also evident in the enchanting Andante with its delicious use of the wind choir. The Minuetto and Trio, probably marked Menuetto ma allegretto in the original (meaning that it was not to be performed slowly), is scored for full orchestra although the trumpets and timpani assume a subdued rôle so that the total effect is not as brilliant as it might have been had the trumpets played the complete melody line. In the Trio the flute is scored in the traditional manner by doubling the melody an octave higher than the first violin. The Allegro molto finale is rapidly moving and brilliant, an appropriate final movement for a C major symphony with trumpets and timpani. The opening two-bar piano motive provides the thematic basis for the entire movement. Vaňhal's ability to create large-scale musical structures out of so little material is one of his great strengths as a composer and in this he can be compared directly with Haydn. At times, however, his capacity for musical invention is if anything even more impressive and the references to important thematic material from the first and second movements in the finale of the symphony brilliantly emphasize the cyclic unity of the symphony and cannot have gone unnoticed by Haydn when he directed performances of the work at Eszterháza.
The Sinfonia in E flat major (Bryan Eb1), is unique among Vaňhal's works. The descriptive title la Tempesta which is written at the beginning of the last movement, together with its style and content, sets the movement and the symphony apart from any of Wanhal's other symphonies. The la Tempesta finale (176 bars) can be analyzed as a movement in truncated sonata form. Its title, however, demands a more imaginative interpretation, and it is possible that it represents a storm in four episodes. The other three movements also differ from their counterparts in other symphonies and, together, they give the impression that the entire work may have been intended to represent a 'theme'. They do not have descriptive titles, but, like the finale, are treated differently from conventional sonata form; e.g. the mid-point repeat bars are lacking from both the first and second movements. Moreover, all movements prominently feature the rising semiquaver 'storm' figure from the finale which gives the entire work a cyclic sense. It seems that Vaňhal has composed a work that describes different aspects of the seasons. The bright, active mood of the first movement with its constant motion of related figures and motives together with the rapidly rising semiquaver 'storm' figure prominently displayed, could represent the mood of spring. The intense minor mood of the second movement with its siciliano rhythm, adagio tempo, chromaticism, and slowly rising semiquavers, could suggest the languid mood of summer. Beginning forte with the same rapidly-rising scale passages as the first and last movements, the Menuetto is contrasted with its placid Trio (piano) whose murmuring arpeggio quavers are suddenly punctuated by two-bar forte interjections. Many suggestions have been made regarding its programmatic intention. Could it be a winter day in which blustery winds are suggested by the forte running semiquavers of the storm-motive, while the piano Trio sections portray a lull in the action and the quiet quavers depict falling snow?
The orchestral parts and scores of the following works are available from: www.artaria.com
The works on this disc, published by Artaria Editions, have been edited by Paul Bryan. The sources upon which the editions used in this recording have been made are:
Sinfonia in E minor (Bryan e3)
Edited by Paul Bryan - Artaria Editions AE290
Prague, Narodní Muzeum: XXXIV E 62 (prov. Waldstein-Doksy)
Sinfonia in C major (Bryan C1)
Edited by Paul Bryan - Artaria Editions AE287
Kroměříž, Archbishopric Castle Music Archive: IV - A 343;
Lambach, Benediktinerstift: No.177;
Kremsmünster, Benendiktinerstift: H.36.358
Sinfonia in C major (Bryan C17)
Edited by Paul Bryan - Artaria Editions AE288
Graz, Musikwissenshaftliches Institut der Universität (prov. Eibiswald): No.42;
Kremsmünster, Benediktinerstift: H.36.354;
Melk, Benediktinerstift: IV N 35
Sinfonia in E flat major (Bryan Eb1)
Edited by Paul Bryan - Artaria Editions AE289
Regensburg, Thurn und Taxis'sche Hofbibliothek: Vanhal 38;
Schlägl, Prämonstratenserstift: MS 378;
Schlierbach, Zisterzienserstift: No.1075
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VANHAL: Symphonies, Vol. 4