AMONG THE MOST attractive orchestral works of the middle of the 18th century are the eight little symphonies of William Boyce, which have become familiar to enough to record collectors, but which never seem to turn up in the programs of our bigh orchestras. Few more charming program-openers exist than these delectable miniatures, whose timings-some as short as five minutes for three concise movements, none longer than 10 or 11-not only make them especially suitable for that purpose, but also enable the whole set of eight to fit snugly on a single disc, as they have been packaged most recently by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Argo ZRG 874 (also on casette, KZRC 874).
Needless to say, the Academy's playing is stylish and the sound bright and crisp. Interpretively, however, Marriner tends to fuss too much over the slower movements, and to slow down the minuets in particular. Some of Boyce's rather angular heartiness is smoothed out, too, in phrasing which does not seem to suit the respective tunes as well as Joerg Faerber's more straightforward approach, with his Wuettemberg Chamber Orchestra, on Turnabout TV 34133.
Indeed, Faerber's is still the most satisfying Boyce package to come along from any source, and it is only half the price of the new Argo. Its only shortcoming is that the drums in No. 5, heard to such glorious effect on Argo, are so distantly recorded that their exhilarating point is hardly made. Otherwise the performances are eminently satisfying, the Turnabout sound is good, and the disc is a fine buy.
Neither Argo nor Turnabout troubles to list the movements of any of these little symphonies, and this is an irritating omission. Vanguard found room for detailed listings on both the jacket and the disc labels for Antonion Janigro's recording with the Solisti di Zagreb on Bach Guild HM-23SD, but both Marriner and Faerber offer more persuasive performances, more handsomely recorded. The last word on these little gems has surely not been said; I would hope Raymond Leppard or Charles Mackerras might have a go at them before long.
All the music in Boyce's symphonies was derived from his theater scores, and of course in his day the terms "symphony" and "overture" were more or less interchangeable. Even Hayhn's last symphonies were introduced in London as "overtures," while the score to an Italian opera even now lists the overture as "sinfonia ." Most of the symphonies of Johann Christian Bach-each headed Sinfonia , are actually the elaborate overtures to his operas, the most celebrated being Op. 18, No. 2, in B-flat, which began life as the Overture to Lucio Silla . In 1763 Johann Christian published a set of similar but shorter works under the heading "Six Favourite Overtures"; these, like the Boyce's symphonies, neatly fill out a single disc (with a little more room to spare), and they have been given their premiere recording by another London-based "academy," the Academy of Ancient Music, under Christopher Hogwood on L'Oiseau-Lyre DSLO 525.
The six three-movement overtures are those to Christian's operas Orione, La calamita' de' cuori, artaserse, Il tutore la pupilla, La cascina, and Astaro, re' di Tiro. No masterworks here, but all six exhibit the London Bach's characteristic gifts of melody and color. Hogwood, whose performing editions of Corelli and Vivaldi concertos have been recorded by Marriner, is a dab hand at such stuff and leads effective, ingratiating performances from his seat at the harpsichord. All his players use "original instruments" or authentic copies; these include two natural horns, one of which is played by Alan Civil. The well-recorded, well-documented disc qualifies as a "discovery," and it is quite refreshing one.