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Johann Baptist VANHAL (1739 - 1813): "3 Piano Quintets, op. 12"

Miklós Spányi, fortepiano; Authentic Quartet

rec: Feb 21 - 24, 2008, Hungaroton Studio
Hungaroton - HCD 32588 (© 2008) (67'11")

Sonata in G, op. 12,1; Sonata in d minor, op. 12,2; Sonata in B flat, op. 12,3

Zsolt Kalló, Balász Bozzai, violin; Gábor Rác, viola; Csilla Vályi, cello

Johann Baptist Vanhal was one of the many Bohemian-born musicians who in the second half of the 18th century spread all over Europe and played an important role in music as performers and as composers. Although he was quite famous in his time not that much is known about him. Too many things that have been written about Vanhal are based on rumours rather than firm evidence. There is no doubt, though, that he played an important role in Vienna. In particular his symphonies brought him fame, and there are reasons to believe that these were even more popular than those by Haydn and Mozart.

One thing we know little about are his skills as a performer. The only things which suggest he was highly skilled are the fact that in 1763 he was listed as first violinist in a performance of Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice. In 1784 he played in a quartet with Haydn, Mozart and Dittersdorf, probably as cellist. It is Dittersdorf who claimed he was his pupil, but there’s no firm evidence of that.

Vanhal was known first and foremost as a composer of symphonies and it is these works that keep his name alive today. A ground-breaking release was the disc with five symphonies which Concerto Köln recorded for Teldec in 1996. It revealed the excellent qualities of Vanhal's music. In fact he composed in almost any genre in vogue in his days: solo concertos, chamber music in various scorings, music for keyboard, divertimentos, secular songs, sacred music and programmatic pieces. Some of his string quartets have been recorded, but the three quintets performed here by Miklos Spányi and the Authentic Quartet are first recordings.

The term 'piano quintet' as used in the title of this disc is a bit misleading. The original French title is more accurate: Trois Sonates avec l'accompagnement des deux violons, viola et violoncelle (ad libitum). This title indicates that the keyboard is the dominant instrument and the strings have just an accompanying role. They have no independent parts and play along with the keyboard, add some colour and fill in the harmonies. This explains the addition ad libitum: the strings can be omitted, and the sonatas can be played by the keyboard alone. These sonatas belong to a genre which was quite popular at the time. A composer like Johann Schobert, who was mainly active in Paris in the 1760s, wrote quite a number of trios and quartets for keyboard with instruments ad libitum.

The three sonatas are all in three movements, the first of which begins with a slow introduction. In each sonata the first movement is by far the longest taking mostly more than half of the duration of the sonata. The adagio of the Sonata in d minor takes less than 3 minutes as does the finale of the Sonata in B flat. Whereas the first and third sonatas have a rather intimate character, the second has the traits of a keyboard concerto. In this piece the bass is more exposed than in the Sonata in G in which the right hand dominates and the bass is mostly reduced to a supporting role.

One of the features of these sonatas is the fact that the keyboard part has several passages of a cadenza-like character. Some of them are written out but Miklós Spányi also adds some of his own. In these passages the keyboard plays without the strings.

Vanhal's symphonies are often characterised with Sturm und Drang, and this description fits these trios as well. This is expressed in sudden dynamic outbursts, general pauses and unexpected diminuendi. Remarkable is also the second movement of the Sonata in G, which is indicated as 'adagio sempre piano' and has a very intimate character.

As the title of these trios refer to the harpsichord as keyboard instrument one may question the use of a fortepiano. Historicaly speaking this is perfectly legitimate: even when the fortepiano is not mentioned, this opus was printed in a time when the new fortepiano had already gained its place in music life. Less convincing is the choice of a copy of an instrument by Anton Walter. The date of the original is not given, but it probably dates from the 1790s, and considering the fast evolution of the fortepiano at the time an earlier instrument had been preferable. There were also moments when I was curious to hear how a harpsichord would sound in these trios.

Miklós Spányi and the Authentic Quartet give good performances and I really liked what I heard in the Sonatas 1 and 2. Only in the third was I a little disappointed as I felt that the performance was a bit uninvolved. In particular in the long first movement - 16 minutes - the artists were not always able to sustain the tension. Part of the problem is that the dynamics are too flat. And I also have to say that the Authentic Quartet is not one of the most brilliant ensembles in the business. Although its role is limited and basically of a supporting kind more could have been made of the string parts.

That said I am glad these three sonatas, or quintets if you like, have been recorded. They broaden the picture of Vanhal's oeuvre, and they make quite good listening.

Johan van Veen (© 2010, rev. 2012)

Relevant links:

Miklos Spányi
Authentic Quartet

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