Aumann Chamber Letzbor Challenge CC72876

Franz Joseph Aumann (1728-1797)
Chamber Music in the Abbey of St. Florian
Parthia ex G a 5 Stromenti
Cassatio in D a 2 Violini, Flautello concertato, Alto Viola e Violoncello
Cassatio ex C a 2 Violini, 2 Viole e Basso
Die Hex
Divertimento in B-flat a 5 Stromenti
Parthia in C a Violinis 2, Alto Viola, Clarinis 2, Basso con Tympano
Ars Antiqua Austria/Gunar Letzbor
rec. 2021, Altomontesaal of St Florian Monastery, St. Florian, Austria
Challenge Classics CC72876 [70]

There are close ties between Gunar Letzbor and the monastery of St Florian. He has made many recordings in which the all-male choir of the monastery participated, and the various halls have been used as the venues for his recordings. No wonder, then, that he wanted to mark the monastery’s 950th anniversary in 2021 with a recording of music by a composer who also was connected to this institution. That is the case with Franz Joseph Aumann, who from 1753 until his death lived and worked at St. Florian.

Aumann was born in Traismauer – northwest of Vienna, close to the Danube – and was a choirboy in Vienna, where he befriended Johann Michael Haydn and Albrechtsberger. In 1753 he entered the Augustinian monastery of St Florian; in 1757 he was ordained a priest. From 1755 until his death he acted as regens chori. His oeuvre comprises a large number of sacred works, among them masses, Requiems, offertories and Magnificats. He also composed a mass in German as well as Passion oratorios, secular vocal works and a small number of instrumental pieces. The latter are the focus of the disc under review.

The core of the programme are three string quintets, which have different titles: parthia, cassatio and divertimento. Those were common titles in the second half of the 18th century, but don’t refer to a specific form or scoring. The string quintet was to become a popular genre in the classical era, although not as popular as the string quartet. Most quintets were scored for two violins, two violas and cello. That is also the scoring of these three pieces by Aumann. However, the string bass is not a cello, but rather an 8′ violone, as was customary in Austria. The texture is the same: all three comprise four movements. They open with a fast movement, and close with a finale, which sometimes has the character of a Kehraus, such as in the Parthia ex G. In between are a menuet and an andante.

There is something special in the way Aumann treats the pairs of violins and violas. “Here the master develops a particular style of chamber music, which probably has its origins in the polychorality of Salzburg church music and which, to some extent, can also be found in Romanus Weichlein’s works (Lambach Abbey): two violins are juxtaposed with two violas”, Gunar Letzbor states in the liner-notes. In the performance he has taken the practice in Salzburg Cathedral as a model and positioned the violins to the left and the violas to the right of the bass. It is also interesting to note that in his oeuvre Aumann gave substantial parts to the viola.

Two further pieces confirm that the titles of the quintets tell us little about scoring or character. The Cassatio in D is scored for a string quartet with an obbligato part for a flautello. Letzbor does not explain what kind of instrument this is, but if one listens, one will hear that it is a descant recorder. This piece comprises five movements. It opens with an allegro and closes with a finale, and in between are two menuets which embrace an andante with the addition con sordino. In the Cassatio ex C, the strings also have to play with mutes in the andante.

The last item in the programme is the Parthia in C, which is really different from the other works, especially because of the participation of two trumpets and timpani, alongside a string quartet. Trumpets usually appeared in music written to praise God – for instance a Te Deum – or what were considered his representatives on earth. Letzbor assumes that this piece was written at the occasion of the visit of an ecclesiastical dignitary or a worldly ruler. The texture is not different from that of the string quintets. Again, the andante has to be played by muted strings.

The remaining item is a curiosity: a song in two stanzas in Upper Austrian dialect. The text of Die Hex is from the pen of Maurus Lindemayr (1723-1783), who had studied theology, but made a name for himself as an author and especially his writings in Upper Austrian dialect. This piece is a satire on the superstition of witches among the rural population. It sheds light on Aumann’s less serious side: he also composed a profane mass (also known as missa parodica) for Carnival: “a mass to satirize stuttering, bad singing and the onerous office of a schoolmaster” (New Grove). In some sources it is attributed to either Mozart or Gassmann, but it has been established as a work from Aumann’s pen.

To date only a few sacred works by Aumann have been recorded, again by Letzbor, with the choir of St. Florian (Pan Classics, 2011). There is much more, and let’s hope he is going to record some of it. I share Letzbor’s enthusiasm for the instrumental works performed here, which are very likely first recordings. These pieces are well written and very entertaining. They are also interesting contributions to our knowledge of Austrian music from the second half of the 18th century.

The success of this disc is also due to the infectious enthusiasm with which they are performed here by Ars Antiqua Austria. The rhythmic pulse comes off to full extent, also thanks to a clear differentiation between good and bad notes. The recording does justice to the spatial positioning of the instruments in the three quintets. The contributions of Markus Miesenberger in the song and of Michael Oman on the flautello deserve much praise.

Once again Gunar Letzbor and his colleagues have done us a favour by making available unjustly neglected repertoire.

Johan van Veen

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