Notes and Editorial Reviews
A distinctive voice exploring a range of tonalities. Full of rhythmic and melodic contrast.
No. 1 in F,
No. 2 in B?
, C 14;
No. 3 in g,
No. 4 in E?,
Mallon, cond; Toronto CO
NAXOS 8570799 (66: 20)
The headnote designates these works as “symphonies,” as given on the album cover, but the titling of the individual opus numbers on the back plate identifies them as “sinfonias.” So, let’s dispense with the naming convention inconsistency first.
As a general rule, musical nomenclature reserves the term “sinfonia” for the three-movement (fast-slow-fast) model that most likely evolved from the Italian opera overture. The term “symphony,” at least as it applies to the 18th and 19th centuries, usually, though not always, refers to a four-movement (fast-slow-menuetto-fast) model that evolved mainly in Austria and Germany, most likely from the trio sonata and suite. But these definitions were in flux throughout the transition between the Baroque and Classical periods we often refer to as “early” or “pre-Classical” (circa 1730–60). Moreover, they address form, not style. And here is where it makes some sense (even if it seems somewhat contradictory) to regard the works on this disc as both symphonies and sinfonias; for in form they are all four-movement (fast-slow-menuetto-fast) symphonies, while in content they retain certain elements of sinfonia style.
What we have in Franz Ignaz Beck (1734–1809), the composer, is also a bit of a tangle of contradictions. Given his dates, his adoption of the newer formal standards being established by Haydn is not surprising. He is also often credited with being one of the first composers to introduce wind instruments into slow movements and, according to Barry S. Brook, note author for Naxos’s recording of Beck’s op. 1 symphonies, to place “increasing emphasis on thematic development,” and to employ “bold harmonic progressions, flexible rhythms, and highly independent part-writing.” Yet music critic and onetime
contributor David Hurwitz seems to disagree, pointing to a “comparative lack of thematic development and elaboration.” So, either Beck placed increasing emphasis on thematic development, or his music is lacking in thematic development. Which is one to believe?
Beck’s symphonies were quite popular in their time, especially in France, where the composer fled and remained for the rest of his life, after believing he had killed an opponent in a duel—the man presumed dead turned up alive and well many years later. But Beck was born in Mannheim, studied under Johann Stamitz, and then in Venice under Galuppi; and on close listening, one hears remnants of stylistic traits still part of Beck’s vocabulary from his Mannheim days. As a result, Beck, who was two years Haydn’s junior, is today thought of as a pre-Classical composer, while his great contemporary, Haydn, is firmly planted on the Classical side of the divide.
Was it merely a talent deficit on Beck’s part that relegated him to secondary rank? Could he have been another Haydn? Or did nurture play as much of a role as nature? In Marseilles and then Bordeaux, Beck was somewhat removed from the centers of symphonic developments occurring in Austria and Germany, and so his writing didn’t really advance. The French Revolution also took a toll on him, putting him on trial for suspected disloyalty and reducing him to writing patriotic songs and hymns to the glory of Napoleon and “liberated” France.
Overlapping cycles of Beck’s symphonies appear to be unfolding, though very slowly. So far, cpo has produced two or three CDs with the period-instrument ensemble La Stagione. Reviews have appeared by Michael Carter in
28:2 and David L. Kirk in 28:3. Naxos is likewise treading the same ground, but with a different modern-instrument ensemble for each of its thus far two releases dedicated solely to Beck. An earlier disc (8.554071) with the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra conducted by Donald Armstrong was recorded in August 2001. It contained the six symphonies of op. 1. The CD at hand was six years in coming; it was recorded in August 2007.
I’ve listened to this disc twice through now, and as enjoyable as these works are, I’m afraid I don’t buy the argument that they’re on a par with Haydn. Like much music by the early-Classical composers—Leopold Hofmann, Dittersdorf, Cannabich, and Vanhal—Beck wears thin after awhile. Melodic contours, harmonic progressions, rhythmic patterns, and accompanimental figuration don’t seem to vary much from one symphony to the next. The works are well crafted and clever in invention, but they strike me as short on imagination and originality. Nor is there much to be said for Beck’s reputed innovations in the use of wind instruments, at least in these scores, which only add a pair of oboes and a pair of horns to the ensemble. Before getting too carried away with claims of Beck’s special flair for writing for winds, let’s remember that 1762, the year in which these symphonies were published, was the same year in which Haydn wrote his Symphony No. 9 in C Major, calling for two flutes, two oboes, two horns, and bassoon, a larger and more varied wind complement than Beck conceived.
I’ve not heard the competing La Stagione recordings, but I’m guessing that those inclined to period instruments in music of this vintage will probably prefer them. Otherwise, the Toronto Chamber Orchestra turns out alert, disciplined, stylish, energetic, upbeat performances in music that sets the feet to tapping but not the heart to fluttering. Recommended then for excellent playing and recording, and especially to those who have a strong liking for the early-Classical symphonists.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Something of a footnote in musical history, Franz Ignaz Beck is finally emerging from the shadows cast by his more celebrated contemporaries. This is thanks to a couple of recent issues by Naxos.
This CD is the second in a short series of orchestral music by Beck. His six Op. 1 symphonies are already available, played by the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra. This second volume from the Toronto Chamber Orchestra under Kevin Mallon tackles four works from his larger-scale Op. 3 set.
A native of Mannheim, the young Beck was talent-spotted by the music-loving Elector Carl Theodor, who supervised his education until the restless lad moved to Italy and then to France. It was there, while leader of an orchestra in Marseilles, that he penned the Op. 3 symphonies.
As one would expect from a nominal member of the ‘Mannheim school’, the symphonies have much in common with orchestral works by Stamitz, Richter and others. But they are also sufficiently different to represent a distinctive voice. For a start, they are cast in four movements – although the recurring third movement minuets are the simplest sections of all four symphonies and do little more than lengthen them. More interesting are the other movements, which are full of rhythmic and melodic contrasts, and explore a range of tonalities.
Take the final Presto of the first symphony (track 4), for example. Its frequent rhythmic changes of gear and tonal shifts recall C.P.E. Bach and even ‘sturm und drang’ Haydn. The Largo in the second symphony (track 6) is also mildly unsettling, making it clear that this music was not just written for entertainment. Other highlights include the final Prestos in both the third and fourth symphonies (tracks 12 and 16). The former is remarkably complex, with a shifting web of melodic lines, while the latter is distinguished by contrasting horn-calls against the strings.
The Toronto Chamber Orchestra ably bring out the unusual aspects of Beck’s writing, although the tempi in the faster movements tend to be rather slow - there is, for example, little difference between their ‘presto’ and ‘prestissimo’ playing. But this is a minor quibble in an absorbing performance.
-- John-Pierre Joyce, MusicWeb International
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