Why did some composers, well respected and successful in their time, become forgotten and have only come down to us as mere footnotes in music history? It is certainly too simplistic to say it is because their music was inferior compared to those of great composers. Usually there are many other factors, social and historical, and I think often it has a lot to do with the change of audience taste towards particular music styles. This was my primary thought while listening to the Amadè Players’ concert entitled “Forgotten Vienna”.

This concert was conceived by the conductor and scholar Nicholas Newland, who has a strong affinity with the music of eighteenth-century Bohemian composers. Many of them, including Johann Baptist Vanhal (also spelt Waṅhal, Vanhall etc) and Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf featured in this concert, were active in Vienna around the same time as Haydn and Mozart and contributed hugely to its musical life. Yet, these days their names are only found in books on music history and their repertoire totally forgotten. For this concert, Newland chose some real rarities by these composers: a symphony and an unknown requiem by Vanhal, a double violin concerto by Dittersdorf and a horn concerto from the era whose authorship is unknown.

Dittersdorf’s Concerto for two violins in C major was a delightful work in the pre-classical style featuring stylish and virtuosic playing from two violinists of the orchestra (Dominika Fehér, George Clifford). Composed around 1762, it has stylistic similarities with the sinfonia concertante type works popular in Mannheim and Paris. The soloists stood on either side of the conductor with the divided violins and they also joined in with the tutti. The two solo parts are written as equals often imitating each other or playing in harmony, and their interplay was highly enjoyable especially in the lyrical duetting cadenzas. The intimate second movement was scored for the two violins and bass only, and the work concluded with a fast and lively third movement with contrasting major and minor sections. I could well imagine this light-hearted work entertaining the aristocratic audiences in eighteenth-century Vienna.

The anonymous Horn concerto In D major (previously attributed to Haydn but possibly by the Bohemian composer Carl Haudek or Anton Joseph Hampel) was also a gem and would be a wonderful addition to the Mozart-dominated eighteenth-century horn concerto repertoire (although I can imagine its anonymity would make it awkward to programme). Performed with assured technical brilliance by Ursula Paludan Monberg on the notoriously difficult natural horn, the work explored its wide tonal range (especially in the cadenza in the third movement) and the different timbres (for example, the hand-stopped notes produce a muted sound), features that would be lost on the modern instrument. The lyrical B minor second movement offered a contrast to the buoyant outer movements.

I had mixed reactions about the two Vanhal works performed in the second half of the concert. While I was impressed by the substantial four-movement A minor symphony (Bryan a2 for Vanhal enthusiasts) with its original scoring of four horns, I felt underwhelmed by the modern world premiere of his E flat major Requiem. I understand that Newland has been working on this forgotten work for some years – he thinks that the work was composed as a tribute to his mother and it may not even have been performed during Vanhal’s lifetime – and though it certainly merits scholarly interest, it didn’t seem much more than a curiosity. It was given a committed performance by the orchestra and the sonorous voices of the Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (there are no vocal solos in the work), but all the movements were in E flat major with recurring motifs, and it all sounded very innocent and consoling but a bit bland. I imagine the work must have had a personal significance for Vanhal but wasn’t meant for the public.

In contrast, his A major symphony (composed before 1772) had a lot of character and could well sit amongst Haydn’s mid-period symphonies or Mozart’s earlier symphonies. Listening to this work, it made me realise that some of the features I previously thought were characteristic to Haydn or Mozart were actually the common musical language of the classical style in Vienna. There was attractive writing for solo oboe and also the four horns, and I particularly liked the Sturm und Drang style final movement with some interesting harmonic progressions. Newland’s conducting could have been tighter at times but it was evident that his enthusiasm for the composer brought out the charms of this work.

 

 

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