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Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723 - 1787): Symphonies

[I] "Symphonies op. 1 & op. 4"
Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens
rec: Nov 16 - 19, 2016, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
CPO - 555 137-2 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (1.29'22")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Symphony in B flat, op. 1,1 (WKO 1); Symphony in C, op. 1,2 (WKO 2); Symphony in D, op. 1,3 (WKO 3); Symphony in E flat, op. 1,4 (WKO 4); Symphony in F, op. 1,5 (WKO 5); Symphony in G, op. 1,6 (WKO 6); Symphony in D, op. 4,1 (WKO 7); Symphony in B flat, op. 4,2 (WKO 8); Symphony in E flat, op. 4,3 (WKO 9); Symphony in C, op. 4,4 (WKO 10); Symphony in G, op. 4,5 (WKO 11); Symphony in D, op. 4,6 (WKO 12)

Christopher Palameta, Nathalie Petibon, oboe; Ulrich Hübner, Karen Hübner, horn; Catherine Martin, Frauke Heiwolt, Katarina Todorovic, Anna-Maria Smerd, Danylo Gertsev, Justyna Skatulnik, violin; Annette Hartmann, viola; Klaus-Dieter Brandt, cello; Yuval Atlas, double bass; Willi Kronenberg, harpsichord

[II] "Symphonies op. 7"
La Stagione Frankfurt
Dir: Michael Schneider
rec: March 25 - 27, 2015, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
CPO - 777 993-2 (© 2017) (62'02")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Symphony in G, op. 7,1 (WKO 13); Symphony in B flat, op. 7,2 (WKO 14); Symphony in D, op. 7,3 (WKO 15); Symphony in F, op. 7,4 (WKO 16); Symphony in C, op. 7,5 (WKO 17); Symphony in E flat, op. 7,6 (WKO 18)

Annette Spehr, Hans-Peter Westermann, oboe; Ulrich Hübner, Jörg Schultess, horn; Ingeborg Scheerer, Kathrin Ebert, Bettina von Dombois, Annette Wehnert, Zsuzsana Hodasz, Milena Schuster, violin; Andreas Gerhardus, Klaus Bundies, viola; Nicholas Selo, Annette Schneider, cello; Marita Schaar, bassoon; Matthias Scholz, double bass; Sabine Bauer, harpsichord

Sources: Six Overtures in Eight Parts..., op. 1, 1759; Six Overtures in Eight Parts..., op. 4, 1762; Six Simphonies..., op. 7, 1767


The name of Carl Friedrich Abel is almost exclusively associated with the viola da gamba. He was a virtuoso on that instrument in a time, that it was in decline in most European countries. In England, where he settled in 1758/59 he was probably the only professional player of the viol. He often gave concerts on his instrument, mostly in domestic surroundings, and had several pupils from the aristocracy.

However, there is much more to Abel than the viola da gamba. Music for his own instrument, often without accompaniment, constitutes a substantial part of his oeuvre, but he also composed music for other instruments as well as for orchestra. Among the chamber music are sonatas for different combinations of instruments, often with an obbligato keyboard part, as well as trios and quartets. For larger scorings he wrote symphonies and solo concertos. The work-list in New Grove includes six sets of symphonies or overtures. These terms are interchangeable; the symphonies op. 1 and op. 4, for instance, were published as 'overtures' in London and as 'symphonies' on the continent. This can be explained from the fact that the symphony had its roots in the Italian opera overture. Like the latter the early symphonies have three movements, of which the last is the shortest and has the form of a dance. Abel's symphonies were indeed used as opera overtures, but he himself was in no way involved in opera. Except one aria with an obbligato part for viola da gamba he did not compose anything for the stage.

In the application of the sonata form in the opening movements Abel's symphonies are modern, but in regard to instrumentation they are rather conservative. The symphonies are scored for pairs of oboes and horns, with strings and bass. But the winds don't play an independent part; the oboes largely play colla parte with the violins, whereas the horns enforce the middle voices. Stephen Roe, in his liner-notes to the recording of the symphonies opp. 1 and 4, states that "[in] practical terms both are essentially accompanying instruments and could almost be dispensed with if necessary." In a number of slow movements the winds are silent. Modern trends are multiple stopping, for instance in the opening movement of the Symphony in G, op. 4,5 and the dynamic contrasts, which are indicated in the scores. There is also a notable influence of the Mannheim School. In several opening movements he makes use of the crescendo.

"The slow movements usually have elegant, lyrical, highly ornamented melodies of considerable breadth", according to New Grove, referring to his compositions in general. It is also mentioned that Abel was famous "for his refinement of taste and his depth of feeling in adagios". The symphonies include no adagios; all the central movements are called andante or andantino. That doesn't make them less expressive, as Michael Schneider points out in the liner-notes to his recording of the op. 7 symphonies. "What sets Abel's symphonies apart from those of his contemporaries is thus not their opening movements, in what would later be called 'sonata form', nor their finales, all of which employ folk dances in rondo form (e.g. fast contredances or minuets). Rather, it is their slow middle movements, usually marked Andante and frequently kept at a 'sempre piano' dynamic level. It is here that we detect a new and wholly individual musical language. And by these movements we mean not primarily those in the galant or Empfindsam style, as in the G major and C major symphonies, but rather the almost 'hymnic', song-like movements for strings alone, as in the B-flat major and F major symphonies." Although there is little development in the symphonies by Abel, the op. 7 includes probably the most advanced symphony in his oeuvre, the Symphony in E flat, op. 7,6, which was once attributed to Mozart and included in the Köchel catalogue (KV 18). It is the only of Abel's symphonies, in which the winds have independent parts.

These two productions are important in that they contribute to a more complete picture of a composer, who was held in high esteem by his contemporaries. Even the ever critical Charles Burney had only positive things to say about his playing. These two recordings are no competition, but complement each other. The performances of both ensembles are very good. However, I slightly prefer the playing of La Stagione Frankfurt, which produces a somewhat warmer and fuller sound. That is not due to the number of players; both ensembles play with three first and three second violins. The only difference is the number of violas and cellos: Willens has one of each, Schneider two. It is especially in the andantes that the latter's performances are more expressive. In comparison Willens is a little too straightforward.

However, those who like music from this period, between the end of the baroque era and the beginning of the truly classical style, should not hesitate to add these two productions to their collection. What we get here is very fine music, which will give much pleasure and is well suited to repeated listening.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Kölner Akademie
La Stagione Frankfurt

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