'Contemporaries of Mozart Collection' offers contrasts to the master

By Mark J. Estren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010

"Contemporaries of Mozart Collection: Symphonies -- Krommer, Stamitz, Pleyel, Kozeluch, Wranitzky." London Mozart Players conducted by Matthias Bamert. Chandos (five discs)

If you really want to take the measure of Mozart (1756-1791) as a symphonist, do not juxtapose him with Haydn, the other ne plus ultra of the time. Compare him instead with such highly respected composers as Franz Krommer (1759-1831), Carl Philipp Stamitz (1745-1801), Ignace Joseph Pleyel (1757-1831), Leopold Kozeluch (1747-1818) and Paul Wranitzky (1756-1808).

That is what audiences of the time did -- often preferring contemporaries whose names are now barely known. And that is what Matthias Bamert and the London Mozart Players give 21st-century listeners the chance to do in this excellent collection of 15 symphonies by some of the "big names" of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

It is surprisingly easy to see, or rather hear, what made these composers so popular in their day. At a minimum, as in the four symphonies by Stamitz, these are buoyant, well-constructed pieces of geniality and elegance. Stamitz -- a son of Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz, who famously polished the Mannheim orchestra to a brilliant sheen -- meets expectations in his three-movement works, and sometimes exceeds them: A G major symphony has a surprisingly substantial first-movement development section and expert use of the full-orchestra Mannheim crescendo, while one in D major deserves its "La Chasse" nickname for its persistent outer-movement horn calls.

Stamitz's charms are on the surface, but those of Pleyel -- once the most popular composer in Western Europe -- are somewhat more substantial. For modern listeners, Pleyel's works suffer by comparison with greater ones: A respectable if scarcely innovative C Major symphony dates from 1803, the year of Beethoven's "Eroica," while one in D minor dates to 1791, the year of Mozart's death -- and includes a dramatic slow introduction that is reminiscent of "Don Giovanni," written four years earlier. Despite some clever touches, such as slow rondos and prominent flute parts, Pleyel's symphonies sound best when they resemble those of other composers, notably Haydn.

Kozeluch's best sections are Haydnesque, too, although contemporaries were impressed that the composer seemed less influenced by Haydn than were many others. The most interesting Kozeluch work offered here, dating to 1787, is the composer's only minor-key symphony -- in G minor. This is the key of two profound Mozart symphonies (Nos. 25 and 40) and one almost-profound one by Haydn (No. 39).

Kozeluch's well-made three-movement work does not approach any of these, despite some unusual elements of design (a development section using two themes instead of one) and instrumentation (two natural horns using different tubing, so one sounds in G and one in B-flat). There is some tension and drama here, but little sense that it is anything other than formulaic.

Krommer's symphonies are more interesting, although they, too, echo other works -- in fact, the D major one played here was written, like Pleyel's C major, in 1803, and also opens with a dramatic slow section reminiscent of "Don Giovanni." But Krommer's is a broader work, with a Beethovenish Scherzo and Mozart-like slow-movement theme (developed, however, rather oddly). The other Krommer symphony here, in C minor, is more substantial, using four horns and three trombones and featuring some Schubertian themes and fine wind writing. In historical context, though, there is less to it, since it was written later than Beethoven's Seventh and Eighth symphonies.

Structurally, the most interesting symphony on these CDs is for strings rather than full orchestra: Wranitzky's Grand Characteristic Symphony for the Peace With the French Republic, which includes English and Austrian-Prussian marches, a lament (played with mutes) for the death of Louis XVI, a representation of battle and a finale of rejoicing.

Wranitzky's other two symphonies here are also well constructed, their most interesting sections being their quiet ones, such as the start of the main first-movement theme in the D major and the gentle slow movement of the C minor. Indeed, the C minor is fairly close in sensibility to some of Mozart's works. But like all the other well-written symphonies here, it serves mainly to show that even among all the very fine composers of Mozart's time, Mozart himself truly was transcendent.

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