KNECHT Le portrait musical de la Nature. PHILIDOR Overtures: Le jardinier et son seigneur; Le sorcier; Tom Jones; Le Maréchal-Ferrant • Christian Benda, cond; Prague SO; O Filarmonica di Torino • NAXOS 8.573066 (67: 27)
Chances are that few people have heard of Heinrich Justinius Knecht (1752–1817), but I will bet that there are even fewer who have never heard of Ludwig van Beethoven. This sort of juxtaposition might seem aRead more complete non sequitur save for the fact that we consider the latter’s “Pastoral” Symphony (No. 6) to have been a landmark work that has achieved the stature of an icon, and yet one would be hard pressed to recall that Knecht too wrote a “Pastoral” Symphony back in 1785. This work, like its famous successor, is also in the non-standard five movements, each of which is based upon a description of nature. Indeed, there is even a thunderstorm, though it does not interrupt a peasant romp, and in the finale one finds a hymn of thanksgiving as well. So, just who was Knecht?
The son of a local cantor in the town of Biberach outside of Stuttgart, he became associated with the local court, where his circle of friends included Christoph Martin Wieland and C. F. D. Schubart, both of whom were active in the field of music, literature, and aesthetics. Knecht, however, seemed rather more reticent by nature, and instead of seeking fame and fortune, he was content to remain in his home town as an organist and schoolmaster. His only escape was a short stint as orchestra director in Stuttgart about 1806, where he was only marginally successful. His life was spent writing small stage works for Biberach and what little recognition he achieved was for an organ tutorial and “corrections” to the theory of Abbé Vogler, both of which were published during the closing years of the 18th century. His music was mostly either for the stage (Carus released a nice recording a few years back of his Aeolian Harp opera) or organ, but what is lesser known is that this “Pastoral” Symphony is but one of several that Knecht wrote, all of which bear the same sort of titles. This is indeed a specialized subgenre known as the characteristic symphony, and such works were not uncommon during the late 18th century. The prime example of Dittersdorf’s “Metamorphosis” symphonies comes to mind, for instance. Given that, his divisions according to descriptors are not at all surprising.
Comparisons, of course, are invidious, and the obvious one perhaps ought not to be made at all. The Beethoven work is not modeled on Knecht at all, and there is no reason to place them side by side, for the musical divide is generational. That being said, however, the 1785 work is remarkable for its integration; all five movements are to be played without stop, suggesting a continuous portrait in music of a rustic scene. A shepherd’s tune, gentle and flowing is rustled by several soft zephyrs and a brief peasant minuet can be heard as the day progresses. A turn to the minor key heralds the gradual building up of clouds, depicted here by a slowing tempo and string arpeggios. A textured crescendo and accelerando foretells the appearance of the storm, which appears with forceful trumpets and timpani strokes and strings scurrying about with abandon. It subsides with a smooth pastoral bassoon representing the dissipating clouds, only to dissolve into the opening bucolic theme, replete with trilling violins representing twittering birds. The final hymn is in fact somewhat contrapuntal, but joyous with high trumpets, a triumphal close.
It is a well knit and integrated work, well deserving rescue from oblivion. Indeed, this is the second recording of the work; Carus released the premiere about two years ago, but I confess not to have been able to hear that one, and thus cannot compare the performances. At 28 minutes, though, it is too short to fill out a disc, and rather than resurrect one of the other titled symphonies, Naxos has chosen to include four overtures to popular operas by François-André Danican Philidor (1726–1795), who was a chess master in addition to being one of the most sought-after composers of comic opera in his day. Chief among these was his adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. These overtures, two of which follow the three-movement pattern (the others being single movements), are sprightly and filled with memorable tunes. There is neat Spanish rhythmic opening to Le sorcier, and there is a rollicking feel to Tom Jones with its prominent horn call. These are fun works, and there is no pretense towards greatness, which makes them all the more interesting. No agendas, just plain, good times can be found therein.
The performances by two orchestras from Prague and Turin respectively sound so well integrated that one cannot tell them apart. Christian Benda keeps his people moving right along, especially in the overtures, where the energy he brings is palpable. On the other side of the coin, the Knecht is done with considerable sensitivity to all of the textured nuances inherent within the music. Each instrument, usually transparently scored, is clear and audible. The tempos here too flexible and bring out the imagery. This is one disc I would recommend without qualms. It presents some lively and rare music that deserves much further publicity.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
German composer, organist and music theorist, Justin Heinrich Knecht was a teacher, church musician and man of the theatre. All of these qualities can be heard in his magnificent Le Portrait musical de la Nature – Grande Symphonie, written in 1785. A work which was much admired and anticipates the structure of Beethoven’s beloved Pastoral Symphony (written 24 years later), this focuses on nature. This ranges from microscopic petals and the flutter of the tiniest feathers to the most menacing storms.
The Knecht begins with the sun shining in a pastoral setting: a waterfall tumbles from the mountain-top, a shepherd pipes and sheep gambol. The closing section of the first movement is crisp and clearly punctuated having earlier evoked wondering zephyrs. We then move to a slower, willowy second movement. The third movement offers a more dynamic torrent of life. Black clouds enter and a storm rages. At this point the double bass section of the orchestra Filarmonica di Torino sound particularly accomplished. As the clouds disperse, trilling violins evoke twittering birds. The gentle swathes of the woodwind (particularly the flautists) and a light-hearted violin solo remind us of the opening movement. In the fifth and final movement, pleasant songs rejoice in the passing of the storm and evoke glimmers of light as seen dappled through the trees. Resounding in a jubilant chorus and hymn of thanksgiving, the symphony ends in resounding bliss and grace.
The second half of this CD transports us from Germany to France, as we are graced by François-André Danican Philidor’s overtures. As a boy Philidor was a chorister in the Chapelle Royale at Versailles where he was taught by Campra, the maître de chapelle. When his voice broke, he left the chapel to earn a living by teaching and serving as a copyist. A keen chess player who enjoyed competing with Voltaire and Rousseau — he earned a living by teaching chess when in the Netherlands — Philidor’s return to music was prompted by Diderot. This was signposted by his return from England to France in 1754 where he was then encouraged by Rameau who suggested that he compose for theatre. On this CD we celebrate Philidor’s majestic zeal for depicting character with humanism and humour. There is also a strong storytelling element to be heard in these overtures.
Spliced between two Allegros, the second movement of Philidor’s overture to Le Jardinier et Son Seigneur, played in the tonic minor key, is particularly arresting and is played most passionately by the string section of the Prague Sinfonia Orchestra, conducted by Christian Benda. Le Sorcier has a story about a soldier (Julien) who has to part from his love (Agathe) and returns as a sorcerer in order to deceive her mother (who wants to marry Agathe off to another man) and win Agathe’s love. This is played in a fittingly sprightly and pithy style.
Never over-sentimentalised, Benda retains the style of Fielding’s novel Tom Jones when conducting Philidor’s overture to his opera by the same name. In the repeated sections, the secrecy and love between Tom and Sophia, and the villainy of Blifil are all reflected. Ultimately, the narrator’s voice can be found in this overture, ending with a musical assertion which seems to be lifted directly from Book XVIII of Fielding’s novel: ‘Whatever in the nature of Jones had a tendency to vice, has been corrected by continual conversation with this good man, and by his union with the lovely and virtuous Sophia. He hath also, by reflection on his past follies, acquired a discretion and prudence very uncommon in one of his lively parts.’
Finishing with the overture to Le Marechal-Ferrant (The Blacksmith), which is a comic opera based on an episode from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, the Prague Sinfonia sound ever energised and alive with complementary textures. Preluding a village farce that involves two young couples, a sleeping potion and mistaken identities, the overture is suitably intriguing. It is split into three movements: a form suggestive of an Italian sinfonia whilst French folkloric elements characteristic of the vaudevilles can also be discerned. The eighteenth century French dramatist Charles Simon Favart praised this aspect of Philidor’s composition, saying: ‘Our musical savants claim that Philidor has stolen from Italians. What does it matter, if he enriches our nation with the beautiful things of foreign lands which we should perhaps never have known without him?’
In its combination of German and French compositions from the mid-eighteenth century, this CD would delight any listener. Knecht’s skill in depicting a pastoral vision and Philidor’s uncanny gift for conveying gesture and anticipation are memorable. With such a high quality recording and two renowned orchestras, these two worlds come alive, imbued with esprit and resilience.
18th Century Change of PaceJuly 11, 2014By Henry S. (Springfield, VA)See All My Reviews"Here is a disk of very pleasant 18th century music that probably won't bring a smile of instant recognition to anyone less than a music historian with an intense academic background. German composer Justin Heinrich Knecht's 5 movement Musical Portrait of Nature dates from 1785, so the obvious question is whether or not this had any influence on Beethoven's subsequent Pastoral Symphony. Given the light texture of Knecht's work, which has a violin solo for several extended passages, one would have to doubt any major connection. Nevertheless, there is a congenial, 'pastoral' feel to this work, which is nicely played by the Turin Philharmonic Orchestra. As for the rest of the disk, we have four overtures for stage works by French composer Francois-Andre Philidor, and these date from the 1760's, or very early in the Classical Era. Played by the Prague Sinfonia, Philidor's music emphasizes the lightness of touch (similar to Knecht) that a chamber orchestra can express so well. Of particular interest, Philidor's overtures are quite lengthy, ranging from 7 to over 12 minutes duration. Furthermore, two of these overtures have 3 sections, each requiring 3 separate CD tracks, which struck me as somewhat unusual construction. No matter- all are sprightly and full of great melody and good cheer. In summary, this nice disk provides some refreshing smaller scale, relatively unsophisticated 18th century compositions which should be of interest to any classical music fan."Report Abuse
The original predecessor to Beethoven's Pastoral April 14, 2014By ben cutler (somerville, NJ)See All My Reviews"At last the historic predecessor of Beethovens Pastoral Symphony, Le Portrait Musical De La Nature by Justin Heinrich Knecht written in 1785. For years Ive wondered what this piece might sound like. Both the year of composition and the fact that Beethoven was moved to do the same thing and still call it a symphony would lead one to believe that the style and sound of this symphony would be early classical a la Haydn. Not so!!! It is profoundly late Baroque in style and sound. What makes it unique is that the music is lavishly filled out with sub-melodies and detail to illustrate the sounds of nature. It is also a considerable work in its 29 minutes of music. Like Beethoven it has 5 movements; the first and last are the same as the corresponding movements in Beethoven. The middle three all have to do with the storm, the first and last of these three being the approach of the storm and its gradual departure. And the storm itself is quite different from Beethovens heavy reliance on timpani. Thunder is often represented by scrambling bass viols to great effect and wind and lightning mostly by skirling strings, also to surprisingly good effect. The first movement is quite beautiful in its nature depictions. While a stylistic influence on Beethoven is nonexistent there are melodic passages which clearly were in Beethovens ear when he wrote his own walk in the country. So, while not a masterpiece, it is definitely worth getting to know. And, in my experience at least, it is unique among late baroque compositions in both its length and intensity of expression. The disk is filled out by four early overtures of a composer often mentioned in texts but whose music is rarely heard, Francois-Andre Danican Philador. This music is quite fascinating, besides being quite good. Stylistically his music sounds most of all like a KPE Bach in its melodic expressiveness and a succinctness that is characteristic also of Rameau, his predecessor. Even though two of these overtures are in the older Italian Style his sound often resembles early Haydn as well. Well, if 1760-5 is too early for Haydns influence, KPE Bachs clavichord sonatas were already well known across much of Europe by then. In the near future Mehul and Cherubini would be influenced by the vivid music of this composer now known only in textbooks. A fascinating disc and long overdue."Report Abuse