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Johannes Matthias SPERGER & Johann Franz Xaver STERKEL: Symphonies

[I] Johannes Matthias SPERGER (1750 - 1812): "Symphonies"
l'arte del mondo
Dir: Werner Ehrhardt
rec: Sept 22 - 25, 2014, Leverkusen, Bayer Erholungshaus
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88875056172 (© 2016) (62'35")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Symphony in c minor (Meier A26); Symphony in D (Meier A34); Symphony in g minor (Meier A21)

[II] Johann Franz Xaver STERKEL (1750 - 1817): "Symphonies, Ouverture à Grand Orchestre"
l'arte del mondo
Dir: Werner Ehrhardt
rec: Dec 8 - 11, 2013, Leverkusen, Bayer Kulturhaus
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88843037522 (© 2014) (66'13")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score op. 35,2
Score Ouverture

Ouverture à Grand Orchestre in F; Symphony in D, op. 35,1; Symphony in B flat, op. 35,2

One of the virtues of historical performance practice is the interest in music which has been neglected by 'traditional' performers and ensembles. If one looks at the programmes of symphony orchestras one seldom sees the name of a little-known composer from the classical era. Most orchestras confine themselves to the standard repertoire of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Even someone like Boccherini hardly makes it to the desks of a symphony orchestra. In all fairness it has to be said that some period instrument ensembles also tend to turn to the standard repertoire as soon as they become part of the musical 'establishment'. To a certain extent l'arte del mondo is also part of that establishment but its director, Werner Ehrhardt, regularly suprises us with unknown repertoire. The two discs to be reviewed here bear witness to that.

Johannes Matthias Sperger is anything but a household name. Compositions from his pen have been included in anthologies, among them discs with music for double bass. This can be explained from the fact that Sperger was educated as a double bass player. In fact, he was the greatest virtuoso on this instrument. His own compositions for the double bass are considered almost unplayable. It needs to be noticed that double bass here means the five-string bass violone which was common in Austria.

Sperger was born in Feldsberg (Valtice, Czech Republic) and as his father worked in the service of the princes of Liechtenstein he was given the opportunity to be educated in music. He later went to Vienna where he became a pupil of Johann Georg Albrechtsberger. In 1769 he received lessons on the double bass from the virtuoso Friedrich Pischelberger for whom Mozart wrote the double bass part in his aria Per questa bella mano (KV 612). From 1777 to 1783 Sperger was in the service of the archbishop of Esztergom, József Batthyányi, in Pressburg (Bratislava, Slovakia). Here Sperger composed his first 18 symphonies as well as concertos and chamber music. When the chapel was disbanded he moved to Kohfidish in then Hungary (now part of Austria) where he joined the orchestra of Count Ladislav Erdödy. Three years later the orchestra was dissolved and for some years Sperger was unable to find an appointment. That lasted until 1789 when he was offered a place in the orchestra of Grand Duke Friedrich Franz I of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in Ludwigslust. The working conditions were pretty much ideal: he was held in high esteem and was given the opportunity to travel and perform as a soloists elsewhere. Sperger remained in Ludwigslust until his death.

When he left Pressburg Sperger continued to compose symphonies. His oeuvre includes 45 symphonies in total. So far only one disc has been devoted to this part of his oeuvre. In 1992 Musica Aeterna Bratislava recorded three symphonies for strings for the label Trevak; in 2001 this recording was reissued by Naxos. Apparently these symphonies date from Sperger's time in Pressburg. The present disc by l'arte del mondo comprises three symphonies for an orchestra of wind and strings which are from the late 1780s. The Symphony in c minor is from 1787, the Symphony in D from 1789. The earliest of the three is the Symphony in g minor which was written in 1786 at the latest and could be older. All these symphonies are in four movements as was common at the time but certainly have a character of their own.

Remarkable, for instance, is the opening movement of the Symphony in D which is called Marche. The typical features of the march alternate with more quiet passages reflecting the indication 'allegro e con spirito'. The andantino has a lyrical character and the finale returns to the spirit of the opening movement. In his liner-notes Olaf Krone refers to the influence of the Sturm und Drang. That is certainly relevant because of the sometimes sudden shifts in character of various episodes within a single movement and some unexpected pauses. The finale from the Symphony in c minor is a good example. About the Symphony in g minor Krone writes: "Its opening movement begins with a surprise in the form of a revival of a technique developed by Johann Baptist Vanhal and nowadays known as a 'piano moderato symphony'". Unfortunately he doesn't feel the need to explain what this is about. I have to confess that I have never heard this term and a search on the internet hasn't made me any wiser: I didn't find this term, neither in the English translation nor in the German original. Apparently it is not so common as Krone thinks. The entry on Vanhal in New Grove doesn't include any information in this matter either. The only thing I can think of is that this movement opens with a slower section which is indeed played piano. Why that should be considered a special compositional technique is beyond me.

These three symphonies offer very fine music and suggest that Sperger was an excellent composer. One can only hope that more of his symphonies - and chamber music for that matter - will be performed and recorded.

Johann Franz Xaver Sterkel is an almost exact contemporary of Sperger: he was born in the same year and died five years later than Sperger. He first prepared for a service in the church, taking holy orders in 1774. Being musically gifted he was educated on organ and fortepiano and regularly played in the cathedral and at the seminary Stift Neumünster in Würzburg, his native city. When a minister in the service of the Elector of Mainz heard him play he invited him to visit the court in Mainz. Apparently the Elector liked his playing and offered him a permanent position. The political situation was difficult and considerably influenced his career. In 1792 French troops attacked Mainz and the court moved to Aschaffenburg; the chapel was disbanded. When the city was recaptured by the German troops the court returned and the Elector appointed Sterkel as Kapellmeister. He immediately started to restore the chapel to its former glory. But in 1797 the French returned; the court moved to Aschaffenburg once again and the chapel was given leave of absence. Sterkel moved to Würzburg but the ties with his employer remained intact. He entered the service of the new Prince, Carl Theodor, who resided in Regensburg. When he was appointed Grand Duke of Frankfurt in 1810 Sterkel moved to Aschaffenburg once again where he headed the court orchestra which consisted mainly members of the former chapel of Mainz.

In his liner-notes Olaf Krone states that the composer's oeuvre hasn't been fully examined and catalogued. This may explain that the article on Sterkel in New Grove is very short on his compositions; his symphonic output is almost completely ignored. The work-list refers to 22 symphonies, the first of which were published in Paris in 1782. The present disc includes the two symphonies op. 35, originally called symphonies périodiques. They were published in 1792; if one listens to these two works one notices that they are considerably more 'modern' than Sperger's. Krone sees a clear influence of Sterkel's symphonies in the oeuvre of Beethoven. That is not surprising as the latter was a life-long admirer of Sterkel.

The Symphony in D opens with an energetic allegro con spirito; it is notable for its wide dynamic range. In both op. 35 symphonies the second movement is in a slow tempo - larghetto and adagio un poco respectively - but both include episodes in a fast tempo, in the former movement played forte. In particular the last movement of the first symphony reminds me of Beethoven. The second symphony's first movement opens with a slow introduction in dark colours; the ensuing allegro assai includes episodes of contrasting character and some harmonic tension.

The programme closes with the Ouverture à Grand Orchestre. It is in four movements, opening with a lyric andantino followed by a brilliant and dynamically explosive allegro. The following andantino links up with the opening movement whereas the piece closes with an allegro which has the same dynamic power as the previous allegro. The date of composition is not given but this has to be the latest piece in the programme.

The comparison with Beethoven is a tricky one and not very useful. If we want to take a composer seriously we should treat him as a master in his own right rather than compare him with what many consider the 'standard'. Sterkel's symphonies and his overture have much to offer and if you like orchestral music from around 1800 you will certainly enjoy this recording. Sterkel's oeuvre deserves to be explored and hopefully this will result in a more complete picture of his oeuvre and his place in music history.

Werner Ehrhardt and l'arte del mondo deserve much praise for bringing the orchestral music of Sperger and Sterkel to our attention. The performances are as good as one would wish. They make these works appear in the best possible light. I am not that impressed by the acoustic; at some moments I felt there is a little too much reverberation but this is a relatively minor issue. Especially in Sterkel's compositions the wind play a major role; they take considerable profit from the good balance between wind and strings here.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

l'arte del mondo

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