August 02, 2007


Franz Xaver Richter: Grandes Symphonies, Nos. 1-6 (Set 1). Helsinki Baroque Orchestra conducted by Aapo Häkkinen. Naxos. $8.99.

Virtuoso Cello Showpieces: Buxton Orr: A Carmen Fantasy; Franz Danzi: Variations on a Theme from Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’; Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Figaro Variations from Rossini’s ‘Barber of Seville’; Gaspar Cassadó: Lamento de Boabdil; Antonín Dvořák: Rondo in G Minor…Silent Woods (Klid)…Sonatina in G Major. Maria Kliegel, cello; Nina Tichman, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      The once-famous composers of the Mannheim School are scarcely household names anymore: Johann and Carl Stamitz, Franz Ignaz Beck, Anton Filtz, Christian Cannabich, Carl Toeschi, Joseph Martin Kraus, et al. But in their time – the mid-18th century – they were at the forefront of what was then modern music, creating works so clearly distinguishable from the Baroque pieces of Bach and Telemann that they helped usher in the new, Classical age. And the Mannheim court orchestra – largely during the years in which Johann Stamitz led it – was responsible for changes in instrumental use that persist to this day: crescendos for the whole ensemble (compared with the Baroque contrast of piano with forte) and the Grand Pause (everyone stops playing, then resumes vigorously after a brief, total silence), to name just two. Franz Xaver Richter was a Mannheim composer, but not one totally committed to the orchestra’s approach, which he thought often favored style over substance (example: the “Mannheim Rocket,” rapidly ascending broken chords starting in the lowest bass range and ascending to the very top notes of which the ensemble is capable). Richter’s two sets of Grandes Symphonies predate his involvement with Mannheim and show him accepting the Baroque approach to composition (notably through his well-mannered use of counterpoint) while also reaching out toward some of the newer elements that would coalesce in the years of Mannheim’s greatness (such as greater emotional content of slow movements and harder-driving fast ones). The Helsinki Baroque Orchestra handles these six works with great verve, on period instruments with which the players seem thoroughly comfortable. Aapo Häkkinen paces the symphonies well, keeping the minuet tempos danceable and letting the Presto movements fly by without getting out of control. Published in 1744 and written a few years earlier, Richter’s symphonies more closely resemble the old-fashioned sinfonia than the newer Haydn-style symphony, and they are not particularly distinguishable from each other. But all are well made, well played and well worth hearing.

      Haydn himself had an important connection with Mannheim, from which he adopted a number of his symphonic techniques: it was the Mannheim orchestra that commissioned Haydn’s “Paris” symphonies (Nos. 82-87) and first played them.

      For a Mannheim connection of a different sort, listen to Franz Danzi’s Variations on a Theme from Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ on the new virtuoso-cello CD from Maria Kliegel (accompanied in fine style by Nina Tichman). Danzi, a Mannheim cellist, originally wrote this piece for cello and orchestra. It is based on the charming attempted-seduction aria, Là ci darem la mano, and gives the cellist plenty of opportunities to be soulful as well as virtuosic.

      The rest of the works that Kliegel plays date to later times. There is more by Dvořák on this CD than by anyone else: two brief but expansive pieces predating the Cello Concerto, and Oscar Hartwieg’s cello-and-piano arrangement of the op. 100 Sonatina, written for violin and piano in 1893, during the composer’s stay in America. The Dvořák works are more substantive than the rest of the pieces Kliegel offers here, but no more enjoyable to hear. Buxton Orr’s Carmen Fantasy is too long for an encore (14 minutes), but it has plenty of encore-like moments. It includes a number of the best-known tunes from Bizet’s opera and repeatedly introduces the “Fate” motif that Bizet uses so effectively. The works by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Gaspar Cassadó are more clearly encore-like and stand in strong contrast to each other, the former based on the famed first-act Largo al factotum and introducing some interesting non-Rossinian harmonies, and the latter using the cello’s expressive powers to reflect on the sorrow of the last Moorish king of Spain as he was sent into exile in 1492. Kliegel is fully engaged with everything she plays on this disc, giving enough weight to the somewhat deeper pieces and enough lightness to the more superficial ones. The result is a treat for anyone looking for string encores that, unlike those for violin, are something less than familiar.

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