April 26, 2018


Carl Friedrich Abel: Symphonies, Op. 1 and Op. 4. Kölner Akademie conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Paganini at the Piano: Arrangements and Variations by Hambourg, Busoni, Zadora, Friedman and Papandopulo. Goran Filipec, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.

     Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) is a footnote in most musical histories, but a somewhat longer footnote than might be expected. He interacted and intersected with genius without possessing a notable degree of it himself. He succeeded Bach as orchestra director in Köthen and was recommended by Bach to Johann Hasse’s Dresden court orchestra, which Abel duly joined and in which he served for 15 years. Nor did Abel’s involvement with the Bach family end there: he and Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian, became friends in the 1760s and jointly established the Bach-Abel concerts in London. These were England’s first-ever subscription concerts and thus a matter of considerable historical importance. Furthermore, a symphony from Abel’s Op. 7 set became quite famous for a time because of a misattribution: Mozart, at the age of eight, had copied the whole thing, apparently to study it, so it was wrongly attributed to him – and still appears in the Mozart catalog as his Symphony No. 3, K. 18. So to the extent that Abel is remembered, it is more as an impresario or the creator of a misattributed work – or as a performer on the viola da gamba, on which he was highly proficient – than as a composer. This is unfortunate, because although Abel’s six sets of six symphonies apiece – 36 such works in all in a total output of more than 40 with the “symphony” label – broke little new musical ground, they have some distinctive elements that make them very much worth reviving. And they show quite clearly where the symphony – at the time equally identified as “overture” – stood stylistically as the Baroque gave way to Classical times. The first two sets of Abel’s symphonies, published in 1761 and 1762 respectively, are now available in exceptionally fine performances on the CPO label. Michael Alexander Willens and the Kölner Akademie are exactly the right match for this music: they perform on period instruments in historically accurate style, and the entire ensemble is essentially an expanded chamber group that includes two oboes, two horns, six violins, a single viola, one cello, one double bass, and harpsichord continuo. The sure-handed and beautifully balanced music that emerges from the group shows both the similarities among Abel’s symphonies and their distinctive elements. All the works in Op. 1 and Op. 4 are in three movements, all in major keys and fast-slow-fast form, and all really do seem more like three-part overtures than like what came to be known as Classical symphonies: none lasts as long as 10 minutes, and several of the works run for only about six. Furthermore, the finales of all the symphonies are formulaic (generally dancelike), and the middle movements usually eschew use of the winds – which are relegated to accompaniment and doubling roles almost throughout. On the other hand, those same middle movements contain many felicitous touches, such as the “drooping” theme in Op. 1, No. 5, and the chromaticism in Op. 1, No. 2. There are also numerous instances showing Abel’s familiarity with the then-new techniques of the Mannheim school: Op. 4, No. 6 contains a very Mannheim-like crescendo, and Op. 4, No. 5 uses quadruple stopping in the violins (which are deftly handled throughout all these works). Like other transitional figures – Hummel comes to mind – Abel suffers from seeming neither here nor there when his works are viewed retrospectively: a bit too Baroque for comparison with Haydn, a touch too Classical to be mentioned in the same breath as Handel. But as this first-rate release shows, Abel’s symphonies are finely honed and filled with pleasantries; and if they are rather inconsequential when compared with the far more developed works of Haydn and, in particular, Mozart, it is worth remembering that Mozart developed as he did in part because of his close study of Abel’s music.

     Niccolò Paganini was born during Abel’s lifetime, in 1782, but the comparatively sedate virtuosity of Abel on the viola da gamba bears as little relationship to Paganini’s violin pyrotechnics as the Baroque/Classical interface does to the Romantic era – which Paganini was instrumental in introducing on the performance side, as Beethoven was in terms of compositions. Paganini was scarcely a great composer, but he was extremely adept in writing works that would showcase his own astonishing talents – and just as Liszt was so influenced by Paganini’s performing style that he modeled his own pianistic prowess on it, so other pianists have been inspired by Paganini to adapt his works to their particular interests and abilities. Goran Filipec explores a few of the works that resulted from this Paganini fascination in an unusual Grand Piano CD whose six works include four world première recordings. These are all 20th-century compositions, but most partake to at least some degree of the Romantic temperament as well as the Romantic inclination to mold music around the performance characteristics of those presenting it. Busoni’s Introduzione e capriccio (Paganinesco) (1909/1925), the last of four works written by Busoni in an imitative/transformative sequence, draws on Paganini’s 11th and 15th Caprices but updates them harmonically. This is one of two works on the CD that have previously been recorded. The other is Studies on a Theme by Paganini (1914) by Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948), a 16-minute set of variations on the famous Caprice No. 24 in which Friedman explores the coloristic possibilities of the well-known theme through his own clearly substantial pianistic abilities. It is a tribute to Filipec’s musicianship that he manages to channel both the Busoni sound and the very different one of Friedman’s work. For that matter, Filipec is equally adept in handling the four première recordings here. One is as extended as Friedman’s: it is Variations on a Theme by Paganini (1902) by Mark Hambourg (1879-1960), which compares fascinatingly with the Friedman work. Both use the same Caprice No. 24 as their basis and vary it about the same number of times (16 for Hambourg, 17 for Friedman). But the sound of the pieces is quite different, with Hambourg’s having the flavor of a grand fantasy while Friedman’s seems more like an extended group of miniatures. Also here are two works by Michael Zadora (1882-1946), Eine Paganini-Caprice of 1911 (based on Caprice No. 4) and Paganini-Caprice No. 19 of 1913 – both of the pieces arranging, or rather rearranging, Paganini’s music in far denser form than would be possible on the violin. The final work on this CD is 3 Capriccios after Paganini (1981) by Boris Papandopulo (1906-1991), and it as different from the others as might be expected from its much later date. The three Caprices used here are Nos. 18, 14 and 5, and Papandopulo treats them all with a kind of neoclassicism that gives them a very different sound from the Romantic and post-Romantic effects presented by the other composers. The five composers represented on this CD are far from the only ones to have been inspired by Paganini to produce works taking the great violinist’s music into other realms; and none of the music played by Filipec can match, for example, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. But this scarcely matters: this disc offers a chance to hear some fascinating reinterpretations of Paganini’s music on an instrument for which he never wrote, but one that is able to produce effects as impressive in their way as Paganini’s own were on the violin.

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