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William BOYCE (1711 - 1779): Eight Symphonies Op. 2

Aradia Ensemble
Dir: Kevin Mallon

rec: June 10 - 12, 2003, Toronto, Grace Church on the Hill
Naxos - 8.557278 (© 2005) (60'57")

Symphony No. 1 in B flat; Symphony No. 2 in A; Symphony No. 3 in C; Symphony No. 4 in F; Symphony No. 5 in D; Symphony No. 6 in F; Symphony No. 7 in B flat; Symphony No. 8 in d minor

Musical life in mid-18th century in England was strongly dominated by Handel and his style. For other composers it wasn't always easy to make a career or to develop their own style of composing. William Boyce was considered one of the most important composers in Handelian England, who attracted much attention with the performance of his serenata Solomon in 1742. Since then he regularly composed music for the stage and was also active as an organist at several churches. In 1755 he succeeded Maurice Green as Master of the King's Musick and in 1758 he was appointed as organist of the Chapel Royal.
But in a way every composer, as good as he might have been, was playing second fiddle as long as Handel lived. It was only after Handel's death, in 1759, that Boyce got the opportunity to compose ceremonial music for state occasions. This fact didn't cause any bitterness. On the contrary, Boyce was full of respect and admiration for Handel. When he was asked to compose the music for the coronation of George III in 1761, he didn't want to set the text of Zadok the Priest to music, as he believed Handel's setting was unsurpassable.

In modern times the eight symphonies opus 2 are Boyce's best-known compositions. They have been recorded a number of times, and twice on period instruments, by Trevor Pinnock with the English Concert (late 80's), and by Christopher Hogwood with his Academy of Ancient Music (early 90's). Considering the date of these recordings there is certainly a place for a new recording.
The Symphonies Nos. 3, 4 and 7 were originally composed as overtures to works for the theatre. The Symphony No. 2 was the overture to a Birthday Ode, the Symphony No. 1 the overture to a New Year's Ode, whereas the Symphony No. 5 was composed as the overture to an Ode for St Cecilia's Day. The Symphony No. 6 is the overture to Solomon, the work which brought Boyce so much success. Only the Symphony No. 8 was especially composed for the publication of this set.

Stylistically these symphonies are split into two categories: the Symphonies 1 to 4 are written in the style of the Italian opera overture and are all in three movements with Italian tempo indications. The second half of the collection is composed in French style, starting with a stately introduction which is followed by a fugal section.
As the number of recordings suggests these symphonies are quite popular, and it is easy to understand why. They are very well written, with lots of variation in musical material, and although they unmistakable bear a Handelian stamp they are certainly no imitations of the great master. Boyce's ability to develop his own musical style brought him the praise of music journalist Charles Burney.

There is also variety in the instrumentation, from strings with additional oboes to a band with trumpets and drums. This is the scoring of the Symphony No. 5, and here the Ensemble Aradia is at its best. In general the symphonies 5 to 8 are better realised than the first four, which I found rather disappointing. In a direct comparison the recordings by Pinnock and Hogwood always come out on top. Their ensembles produce a stronger, fuller and more robust sound than the Ensemble Aradia, which sounds a little thin and pale.
According to the text on the backside of the case of this disc these symphonies display 'sprightly rhythms'. But unfortunately these performances too often do not. For instance, the middle movement of the Symphony No. 3 is anything but 'vivace'- the repetition of the same motifs is boring due to a slow tempo and a lack of rhythmic vitality. It is not Boyce's fault as in particular Pinnock's interpretation demonstrates. And in this movement the bassoon doubles the violin part in the tenor register, but the part of the bassoon is hardly audible, so the listener may well miss this feature unless he has read the programme notes first.

These programme notes - by Keith Anderson - are informative and well written, but Naxos should have edited the booklet more carefully. The list of members of the Aradia Ensemble has obviously been copied from another production as it lists a number of singers, which obviously don't sing here, and omits the players of instruments appearing on this disc, like the flute and the horns. It is quite possible that the players listed in the booklet have not been involved in this recording at all.
To sum up, a recording which has its merits, but in general doesn't deliver any competition to the recordings by Trevor Pinnock and Christopher Hogwood. If these are still available, then they are the strong favourites in these fine symphonies.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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