in: Reviews

April 21, 2012

Bohemian Composers Deserve Revival

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In the last half of the 18th century, Vienna was the capital of an empire that contained dozens of ethnic groups and languages. One of these, Bohemia, was almost as noted for music-making as Vienna itself. In addition to shaping a thriving musical life around Prague, Bohemian musicians also quite naturally made their way to Vienna and other places where employment possibilities were likely.

For its last program of the 2011-12 season, the Musicians of the Old Post Road put together a stimulating program of music by composers all but unknown today who were part of that flowering of Bohemian music that operated in counterpoint, so to speak, with the handful of composers that every music lover knows, notably Haydn and Mozart. The program ended with a little-known work by Mozart, but otherwise it consisted of attractive works by composers of Bohemian background whose music might very well attract more attention, especially if presented as attractively as it was here.

The best-known of these particular Bohemians was surely Carl Stamitz (1745-1801), a prolific composer of symphonies, concerts, and chamber music, though ironically, he was born and lived his entire life in Germany. (His father Johann Stamitz, the leading member of the first generation of composers of the “Mannheim School,” had left Bohemia for Mannheim, where Carl was born.) Certainly the least known composer on the program was Josef Antonín Štepán (1726-1797). The other two, Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812) and Adalbert Gyrowetz (1763-1850), became relatively significant figures at the turn of the 19th century, though most concertgoers will rarely, if ever, encounter their music.

By presenting the works chronologically, the ensemble not only showed the gradual transition from holdovers of Baroque style (especially in Štepán’s Concerto in D major, from about 1760) to a clearly developed classical style.  The heading “concerto” was no doubt a response to the featured keyboard part (performed by Michael Bahmann), but the “orchestra” was simply a trio, so that the character was that of a chamber work with a leading solo part that interacted conversationally with the others.

Stamitz is most often heard on recordings of larger works, especially concertos for clarinet or a stringed instrument. The G-minor Trio (Op. 14, no. 4) performed here by flute (Suzanne Stumpf), violin (Sarah Darling), and cello (Daniel Ryan), is obviously intended for a chamber of modest size rather than a larger concert hall, but the dynamic changes recall essential characteristics for which the “Mannheim” orchestra was so noted.

Dussek, a major keyboard performer who played all over Europe, was instrumental in developing the characteristic techniques of early Romantic piano music. The Piano Trio in E minor, op. 2, no. 3, of 1787 adumbrates romantic gestures already (coincidentally in the same year as another romantic forerunner, Don Giovanni).  Both the Stamitz and the Dussek trios consisted of just two movements, the first in a minor key, the second a somewhat lighter rondo, but Dussek retains enough of the dark qualities of the first movement in his finale to keep the expressive character consistent.

The most pleasant surprise of the evening was the work of Adalbert Gyrowetz, a name that pops up in many contexts, though we have very little opportunity actually to hear his music.  Still, one of his symphonies was published in Paris in the late 1780s under the name of Haydn, which suggests a level of skill above the mean. After he became the second Kapellmeister at the Vienna Court Opera, he was required to compose at least one opera and one ballet every year. Beethoven admired his Robert, or the Examination. By odd coincidence, he set in 1818 a libretto that would later serve for Verdi (Il finto Stanislao), and his last opera anticipated Wagner at least in its libretto, since his subject was Hans Sachs. I, for one, would be eager to hear his 1812 singspiel Das Winterquartier in Amerika (“Winter Quarters in America”).

Gyrowetz’s 1785 Quartet in D for flute and strings (op. 11, no. 1) clearly comes out of the world of Haydn and Mozart, both of whom he knew.  The slow movement is smoothly lyrical in a Mozartean vein, while the two outer movements both make surprising harmonic turns not unlike those found in the mature work of Haydn, then finds witty ways out of what might be an impasse. If this is typical of his chamber work, I look forward to hearing more.

As a final tidbit with a “Bohemian” connection, the ensemble, joined by violist Marcia Cassidy, performed a quintet arrangement, probably by Franz Anton Hoffmeister, of an aria from The Marriage of Figaro. What was not made clear in the program — it probably confused those listeners who know Mozart’s opera well — was that this was not an aria from the standard score completed in 1786 and identified by the Köchel number 492, but rather a substitute aria that hardly anyone living will ever have heard. Bearing the catalogue number K.577, Mozart composed it as a substitute for Deh vieni, non tardar for a particular soprano performing the opera in Vienna a few years after the Prague performance.  It was a pleasure to hear this almost-forgotten bit of Mozartiana, especially since I cannot imagine any soprano actually choosing to sing Al desio di chi t’adora in a performance of the opera in lieu of the ravishing and playful Deh vieni.

As they have done so often in the past, the Musicians of the Old Post Road assembled a program full of charm and some special delights, and elegantly played. It carried us briefly back to a musical salon in Prague some two centuries ago.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1999.

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