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Birth of the Symphony: Handel to Haydn / Egarr, Academy of Ancient Music

Handel / Academy Of Ancient Music / Egarr
Release Date: 11/19/2013 
Label:  Aam Records   Catalog #: 1   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  George Frideric HandelFranz Joseph HaydnWolfgang Amadeus MozartFranz Xaver Richter,   ... 
Conductor:  Richard Egarr
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of Ancient Music
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BIRTH OF THE SYMPHONY: Handel to Haydn Richard Egarr (hpd, cond); Academy of Ancient Music (period instruments) AAM 001 (70:56)

HANDEL Saul: Sinfonia. RICHTER Symphony in C. STAMITZ Symphony a 4 in D. MOZART Symphony in E?, K 16. Read more HAYDN Symphony No. 49

In a brief essay in the booklet accompanying this disc, director Richard Egarr makes what has to be the understatement of the year: “This recording of early 18th-century ‘symphonies’ hardly scratches the surface of the diversity of musical offerings that bear such a title.” No kidding. A look at the monumental tome of the first volume of A. Peter Brown’s history of the symphony published last year reveals a gargantuan repertory that reflects an incredible diversity in terms of the genre right at its beginning, so with this in mind, one must take the title of the disc with a huge dose of salt, particularly with respect to the five works chosen to represent its “birth.” Even the subtitle seems a bit disingenuous, for by the time one gets to both Mozart and Haydn in the 1760s and 1770s, the symphony was about as ubiquitous a genre as one could find, and what is more, developments were continuing at a breakneck pace, even in the works of both of these composers. “Handel to Haydn” may be a catchy ad ploy, but it hardly squares with the early history of the symphony. Handel’s work has nothing to do with anything outside of the oratorio to which it is attached, and Haydn’s Sturm und Drang work is reflective of a mature composer, while Mozart’s first surviving effort is not groundbreaking in terms of style or technique, even though it is certainly a fine initial effort by an eight-year-old kid. Richter and Stamitz are more appropriate, as they were in on the ground floor of the genre’s development and popularization, but could not the venerable Academy of Ancient Music have chosen true prototypical pieces by composers such as Johan Agrell, Giovanni Sammartini, Antonio Brioschi, or even Johann Christian Bach (who appears in the notes as Mozart’s mentor and model)? I shall step off of my soapbox with this last statement, with the hope that my observation of the title disconnect may reach the appropriate audience.

As for the music itself, Saul (and its Overture) are well-represented, as are both the Mozart and Haydn, the first of these of course as recorded years ago in the pioneering Mozart symphonies series by Christopher Hogwood with the same ensemble (the last, as well). Thus there is no real novelty to their repetition here. Richter’s “Grand Symphonie” stems from his first set of 12 popular works, published in Paris in 1744 and recorded previously by the Helsinki Baroque under Aapo Hakkeinen for Naxos. It is a seminal set in the historical canon, and here one finds particularly in the outer movements a nice compendium of the art of suspension, of which Richter was a master. The lyrical, plaintive slow movement in the minor lends a nice touch of drama to this simple work. The string instrument Symphony by Johann Stamitz, on the other hand, is far more lively. It too is a relatively early work, but already one finds the various layered crescendos, drum bass, and scalar violin display that were endemic to Mannheim. The Lombardic rhythms of the slow movement add interest, and the Finale is a rollicking dance. It too has had its outings, but it bears repeated recordings as a well-composed, rousing piece.

As for the ensemble, the Academy of Ancient Music has been somewhat M.I.A. in the recording world for the past several years, though of course it has been active. As one of the early leaders of the performance practice movement, it has a special place in history, and even though it has huge competition, even in the United Kingdom, it still can be counted as among the best. This disc is its first foray into the now-common world of private commercial recordings, whereby the ensemble takes its destiny into its own hands. Thanks to the Internet this is hardly as perilous and uncertain as it once was, so this is a move that might guarantee a certain reportorial freedom. As always, the ensemble is energetic and focused, and pays close attention to the often intricate workings of these symphonies. The strings are particularly excellent in terms of their overall sound, and—especially in the first movement of the Richter, which requires adroitness between the first and second violins—one can find the reason why this ensemble still has such a sterling reputation.

As I review this, I’m in a bit of a quandary. The disc itself is excellent, but all of the pieces are represented by equally fine recordings elsewhere, though not in this particular order. I balk at the notion that this in any way is truly representative of the “Birth of the Symphony,” as my rant shows. But it is a symbolic disc of perhaps new directions and the re-emergence of the Academy as a premiere early instrument recording ensemble, and thus I can foresee it becoming a collector’s item. The excellence of the performances alone recommends it, but this is an added fillip, and one which augurs much more interesting things to come.

FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
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Works on This Recording

Saul, HWV 53: Sinfonia no 1 "Bell" by George Frideric Handel
Conductor:  Richard Egarr
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of Ancient Music
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1738-1739; London, England 
Symphony no 49 in F minor, H 1 no 49 "La Passione" by Franz Joseph Haydn
Conductor:  Richard Egarr
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of Ancient Music
Period: Classical 
Written: 1768; Eszterhazá, Hungary 
Symphony no 1 in E flat major, K 16 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor:  Richard Egarr
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of Ancient Music
Period: Classical 
Written: 1764; London, England 
Symphony no 7 in C major by Franz Xaver Richter
Conductor:  Richard Egarr
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of Ancient Music
Period: Classical 
Written: 1744; Germany 
Symphony in D major by Johann Wenzel Stamitz
Conductor:  Richard Egarr
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of Ancient Music
Period: Classical 
Written: by 1750; Mannheim, Germany 

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