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"Zappa Symphonies" - "Crowning Glory - The Musical Heritage of the Netherlands"

Elizabeth Dobbin, sopranoa; Caroline Kang, cellob
New Dutch Academy Orchestra
Dir: Simon Murphy

rec: June 15 - 17, 2009, Maassluis (Neth), Grote Kerk
PentaTone Classics - PTC 5186 365 ( 2009) (68'12")

Christian Ernst GRAAF (1723-1804): Symphony in D, op. 14,1; Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Conservati fedele, concert aria (KV 23)a; Symphony in B flat (KV 22); Friedrich SCHWINDL (1737-1786): Symphony in D, op. 9,3; Carl STAMITZ (1746-1801): Symphony in C, op. 24,1; Francesco ZAPPA (fl 1763-1788): Symphony in B flat [Concertata Sinfonia pi Stromenti Obbligati]b; Symphony in Db

The musical landscapes in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries were quite different. They were the expression of the political and social structure of the various countries which had developed through the course of history. The Netherlands were different from almost any country in Europe. They were a republic and therefore there was no royal court with all the pomp that goes along with that like in France. It had an aristocracy but no large landowners who had their own court and chapel like in Germany and Italy. And the dominating Reformed Church didn't allow any other music in Sunday services than metrical psalms to be sung by the congregation. As a result there was little employment for professional musicians and composers.

The musical landscape in the Netherlands was largely dominated by music making in private homes and gatherings of social circles. That was the case in the 17th century and lasted well into the 18th. During the 18th century a process of centralisation took place. Since 1747 the Netherlands had only one stadtholder and when this function was made heriditary there was little difference with a monarchy anymore. As the stadtholder was residing in The Hague the city grew in stature and became a centre of culture. That was especially the case under William V of Orange who was a lover of the arts and especially of music. His mother was Princess Anne of Hanover who had been a pupil of George Frideric Handel and she was a stimulating force in the building up of a genuine music scene in the city. William was married to Wilhelmina, a niece of Frederick the Great. Through this the House of the Oranges became part of an international network which enhanced its reputation. This paved the way for musicians to visit The Hague or to work there as performers or teachers for some time. In his liner notes Simon Murphy includes an impressive list of composers of international fame who came over, like Mozart, Franz Xaver Richter and Carl Friedrich Abel. The presence of first-rate musicians also made it possible to perform music of high quality, some of which was printed by the brothers Hummel, who started their business in The Hague, and later also were active in Amsterdam and Berlin.

"The music featured on this disc comes from the period between roughly 1760 and 1785. The programme aims to give an impression of the type of repertoire performed at the court in this period and to give insight into the effervescent and cosmopolitan flavour of the court's musical taste and style", Simon Murphy writes. I don't quite understand why the name Zappa is featured prominently on the cover of this disc as he is the least-known of the composers in the programme. Christian Ernst Graaf and Friedrich Schwindl are no household names either, but at least they are represented in the catalogue. I don't think any piece by Francesco Zappa has ever crossed my path.

He was quite famous in his time, though, as a virtuosic cellist and made several tours through Europe as a performer. This explains the obbligato parts for the cello in the slow movements of the two symphonies which are recorded here. These movements could easily be part of a full-blooded cello concerto. They are lyrical in character and both end with a cadenza.

Christian Ernst Graaf (or Graf) was one of the main figures in musical life in The Hague. Probably around the middle of the 18th century he travelled to the Netherlands and was active in several cities. From 1757 or 1758 he served the court as music director. He composed a considerable amount of instrumental and vocal music. This disc begins with the Symphony in D, the first of a series of six which was published as his opus 14 in Berlin and Amsterdam in 1776.

Like Graaf Friedrich Schwindl was of German origin, but his birthplace isn't known (although the Belgian musicologist Ftis stated he was born in Amsterdam). He settled in the Netherlands in the 1770s where he became first violinist at the court and was active as a teacher. His compositions were widely spread and appear in many printed collections. His music was performed at the Concert Spirituel in Paris and were assessed favourably by contempories as Burney, Hiller and Schubart. His Symphony in D is the last in a collection of three, published in The Hague around 1765 as his opus 9.

Carl Stamitz was the son of Johann Stamitz, the founding father of the Mannheim School. In the 1780s he worked several years in The Hague and appeared regularly in public concerts, mostly as a soloists in concertos for viola. A number of his compositions have been printed by Hummel in The Hague, including his Symphony in C, the first of the three symphonies opus 24.

The only really famous name in the list of composers is Mozart. He was on his way from Paris to London with his father in July 1765 when he was asked by a Dutch diplomat to visit The Hague. Here he stayed from September 1765 until April 1766 and have a number of concerts with his sister in several cities. During this time he composed two orchestral works, the Symphony in B flat (KV 22) and Galimathias Musicum (KV 32), a kind of musical quodlibet. The concert aria Conservati fedele (KV 23) was also composed during this time.

A look at the names represented in the programme strongly suggests that the music performed at the court in The Hague was of really good quality. This is confirmed by the compositions recorded by the New Dutch Academy Orchestra. With the exception of the two works by Mozart all compositions on this disc are recorded here for the first time. There is no reason why they should be neglected. It is probably fair to say that they really need an excellent performance to show their real quality. Fortunately the New Dutch Academy Orchestra is delivering excellent performances here. I have to say, though, that I am not that happy with the acoustical circumstances in which this recording has taken place. A large church like the Grote Kerk of Maassluis is not the most appropriate venue for the repertoire played here, and I really don't understand why they didn't go somewhere else. The pieces with the full orchestra - including brass and timpani - which open and end the disc, by Graaf and Stamitz respectively, are coming off rather well, but in the other compositions I find the sound a bit flat and lacking presence.

This is a minor blot on an otherwise excellent production. Caroline Kang plays the obbligato parts in Zappa's symphonies very well, technically immaculate and with great sensitivity. Elizabeth Dobbin is alright in the concert aria by Mozart without being really impressive. Her interpretation is certainly not top of the bill. The booklet doesn't include the lyrics of this aria, by the way.

Anyway, I strongly recommend this disc as it reveals how many treasures are still waiting to be rediscovered. There is really no excuse for recording the same pieces time and again. Musicians with curious and enterprising minds like Simon Murphy and his colleagues will always be able to find first-rate music which is unjustly neglected. May many discs of this kind follow in the years to come.

Johan van Veen ( 2010)

Relevant links:

New Dutch Academy

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