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CD reviews

"Sturm und Drang"

[I] "Sturm und Drang I"
Chiara Skerath, soprano
The Mozartists
Dir: Ian Page
rec: Jan 4 - 6, 2019, London, St John's Smith Square
Signum Classics - SIGCD619 (© 2020) (71'00")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Haydn

Franz Ignaz BECK (1734-1809): Symphony in g minor, op. 3,3; Christoph Willibald VON GLUCK (1714-1787): Don Juan, ballet (larghetto - chaconne); Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): La canterina, intermezzo (H XVIII,2) (Non v'`e chi mi aiuta); Symphony in f minor 'La Passione' (H I,49); Niccolò JOMMELLI (1714-1774): Fetonte, opera (1768) (Ombre che tacite qui sede); Tommaso TRAETTA (1727-1779): Sofonisba (Crudeli, ahimè, che fate?; Sofonisba, che aspetti?)

[II] "Sturm und Drang II"
Ida Ränslöv, mezzo-soprano
The Mozartists
Dir: Ian Page
rec: Jan 10 - 13, 2020, London, St John's Smith Square
Signum Classics - SIGCD636 (© 2020) (71'39")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Haydn

Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782): Symphony in g minor, op. 6,6 (Warb C 12); Christoph Willibald VON GLUCK (1714-1787): Paride ed Elena, opera (1770 (O del mio dolce ardor; Tutto qui mi sorprende - Le belle immagini, rec & aria); Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): Stabat mater (H XXa,1) (Fac me vere tecum flere); Symphony in g minor (H I,39); Josef MYSLIVECEK (1737-1781): Semiramide, opera (1766) (Tu mi disprezzim ingrato); Jan Baptist VANHAL (1739-1813): Symphony in d minor (Bryan d1)

[III] "Jet Set! Classical Glitterati"
Gudrun Sidonie Otto, soprano; Simon Murphy, viola
The New Dutch Academy
Dir: Simon Murphy
rec: May 2017, The Hague, Raad van State (Gotische Zaal)
Pentatone - PTC 5186 787 (© 2019) (66'09")
Liner-notes: E; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Zelter

Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787): Symphony in C, op. 14,1 (WKO 25); Symphony in E flat, op. 14,2 (WKO 26); Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Le nozze di Figaro (KV 492) (Deh vieni, non tardar); Giovanni PAISIELLO (1740-1816): L'amor contrastato (La molinara), opera (1788) (Nel cor più non mi sento, duet, abridged & arr for solo voice); Johann Friedrich REICHARDT (1752-1814): Symphony in G; Stephen STORACE (1762-1796): The Siege of Belgrade, opera (1791) (Domestic peace); Carl Friedrich ZELTER (1758-1832): Concerto for viola and orchestra in E flat

The music wirtten between the baroque period and the classical era is receiving quite some attention these days. However, it is still a matter of debate which label to put on this stage in music history. Compositions from this time are sometimes considered expressions of the Empfindsamkeit, in other cases specimens of the Sturm und Drang. At the same time, many compositions reflect the galant idiom, which disseminated across Europe during the last decades of the baroque period and remained popular well into the last decades of the 18th century.

Whereas the galant idiom is a reflection of a world which is mainly pleasant and peaceful, both Empfindsamkeit and Sturm und Drang focus on the reality of human passions. The former is mostly rather intimate, and focusses on deep feelings about the darker sides of life. Sturm und Drang emphasizes the fact that human beings can suffer from strongly contrasting emotions, which can quickly change. Both can be interpreted as responses to the peace and quiet of the galant idiom.

Ian Page has planned a series of seven discs devoted to music which can be ranked among the Sturm und Drang. The two first volumes have been released and offer a mixture of orchestral music and opera arias. The latter are essential, as these mark the differences with the baroque era, whereas the symphonies represent an entirely different genre, not known in the previous era.

It is no coincidence that the first disc - and the series - opens with music by Christoph Willibald von Gluck. His name is connected with a different aesthetic ideal in opera: it should be more realistic, more 'natural', and the events in an opera should not be overshadowed by artificial devices, such as long dacapos and a cartload of ornaments. The ending of his ballet Don Juan is a perfect example of realism, as it graphically depicts Don Juan's disappearing in Hell. Gluck explores the full dynamic range of the orchestra. Obviously, the audience could see that happening, but Gluck also wanted them to hear and feel it. His music leaves nothing to the imagination. Different, but also a clear manifestation of his aesthetics is his opera Paride ed Elena. The second disc includes two arias, and the second marks a clear difference with the baroque opera seria. It is in binary form, and whereas in the A section Paris expresses his disappointment about his lack of success in his attempts to win Helena, in the B section he takes heart from the fact that he has the support of Venus. The latter feelings prevail, and therefore the A section is not repeated, as was the habit in baroque operas.

The operas from this period are little known. It is telling that the first disc includes arias from two operas which are not available on disc. That goes for Niccolò Jommelli's Fetonte - about the story of Phaeton as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses - and for Tommaso Traetta's Sofonisba. The latter is another example of an opera breaking away from the habits of the past. It has no happy end: the opera closes with Sofonisba's committing suicide by poisoning herself. Her deliberations leading to her death are expressed in a long accompanied recitative. She actually dies offstage; the time that a character died in view of the audience had not come yet. The other aria is also interesting: Sofonisba's despair is depicted by mixing up the order of the words. The score also indicates the use of an urlo francese - a 'scream in the French manner'.

The first disc includes two symphonies. Franz Beck probably composed his symphonies in Mannheim before he moved to Italy and finally settled in France, where he mainly focused on the composition of sacred music. They are examples of Sturm und Drang, and the Symphony Op. 3, 3 is a perfect example. It is in the key of G minor, which was characteristic of this style, and was especially used for mourning and heartbreak. And finally there is the Symphony No. 49 by Haydn, which is nicknamed 'La Passione' and begins with a long adagio movement. The two fast movements include wide leaps and strong dynamic contrasts. It is suggested that this symphony was written for Passiontide, but there is no evidence of that.

The second volume confirms the dominance of the key of G minor: two of the three symphonies and two arias are in this key. Another symphony from Haydn's group known as the 'Sturm und Drang Symphonies' (Trevor Pinnock recorded them all for Archiv with his orchestra The English Concert) is No. 39 in g minor; it does not begin with a slow movement like No. 49 played in the first volume, but the first movement is remarkable because of the large dynamic contrasts and the unexpected and dramatic pauses - two typical features of Sturm und Drang. The strings play the first phrases piano, interrupted by pauses, and then all the instruments come in, which has a great dramatic effect. The second movement also thrives on dynamic contrasts, while the last takes up the nervousness of the first movement. Haydn is also the composer of one of the G minor arias, from his Stabat mater: 'Fac me vere tecum flere'.

No composer wrote as many symphonies in minor keys as Johann Baptist Vanhal, who was one of the most successful composers of his time. The Symphony in d minor (Bryan d1) is performed here (not in g minor, Bryan g2, as the reverse of the CD has it), and passionate feelings are expressed in the two corner movements, while the second movement, with its idyllic character, forms the contrast. The disc ends with the only symphony in a minor key by Johann Christian Bach: the Symphony in g minor, Op. 6,6. It is composed entirely in the Sturm und Drang style and thus represents a great contrast to his other symphonies, which are in the galant idiom. It is for a reason that the youngest Bach son is considered to be one of the most important exponents of this style.

These two discs are the promising start of a project that looks very interesting. The arias from operas show once again how poorly the opera repertoire of the period between the baroque and classical periods is represented in the record catalogue. As I already noted, none of the above-mentioned operas by Jommelli and Traetti are available on disc, and that also goes for Myslivecek's Semiramide, from which an aria can be heard on the second disc. The orchestral works do better: all the recorded symphonies are already available on disc. Hopefully the next volumes will include some orchestral works that are new to the catalogue. The Mozartists play quite well, but I find the sound of the strings a little pale and a bit too cool. The accents could have been sharper and the dynamic contrasts stronger. Overall, the performances are a bit short on profile. The singers know how to handle the dramatic features of their arias. Especially Chiara Skerath is excellent in the excerpts from Traetta's Sofonisba. Stylistically, it's a different story: as is common today, the singing of both is marred by too much (and pretty large) vibrato. It doesn't withhold me from recommending these two discs as they put the spotlight on a style that is not yet valued enough, but has given birth to so many exciting works. I am looking forward to the next volumes

In some way, the third discs links up with these two, although it does not have the Sturm und Drang as its theme. There are two symphonies by Carl Friedrich Abel, and one by Johann Friedrich Reichardt, and these are all first recordings. The programme opens with the Concerto for viola in E flat by Carl Friedrich Zelter, which is played here for the first time on historical instruments. There are also opera arias, including Pasiello's 'Nel cor più non mi sento', which inspired several composers, among them Beethoven, to the composition of variations. Originally a duet, it is played here in a short version as a solo aria. The subtitle of the disc mixes the words 'litterati' and 'glitter'. Simon Murphy, in his liner-notes, explains the raison d'être of the programme. "[This] album follows the musical 'jet set' of the 18th century as they "do" the splendid cosmopolitan epicentres of the time, including London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg".

Music was an integral part of social gatherings of the litterati of the 18th century. Whether they have heard the music performed here, is impossible to say, but what they heard was certainly more than simple lollipops. Murphy states that "[the] music featured on this album, most especially the Abel and Zelter, is of a style which does not rely on bombast or sheer power to impress. Instead, it focusses on sensibility and eloquence to convey its message and does so in a highly personal manner." That brings us in the atmosphere of the Empfindsamkeit rather than the Sturm und Drang. However, these were not completely separated compartments, and were sometimes mixed.

This disc is a most interesting and substantial addition to the discography, because of the first recordings, but also because it adds to our knowledge of a period in music history that is dominated by the big names. Reichardt and Zelter in particular are little more than names in liner-notes and books. Very few of their compositions are performed or available on disc. The performances do this repertoire ample justice. It is notable that Murphy opted for a relatively modest orchestra and the recording took place in not too large a venue. He believes that back then the works that are performed here were not played in very large spaces. And that's why you get a good impression of how the litterati of that time might have heard such music. Gudrun Sidonie Otto is the stylistically convincing soloist in the arias, and Simon Murphy the excellent soloist in Zelter's viola concerto.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Gudrun Sidonie Otto
Ida Ränzlöv
Chiara Skerath
The Mozartists
The New Dutch Academy

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