Johann Stamitz (1717-1757)
Violin Concerto No 2 in C major
Violin Concerto No 3 in F major
Violin Concerto No 4 in F major
Symphony in E-flat major, Op 4 No 4
David Castro-Balbi (violin)
Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn/Kevin Griffiths
rec. 2021, Sulmtalhalle, Erlenbach, Switzerland
CPO 555 479-2 [58]

The booklet for this disc starts by quoting an observation from musicologist Hugo Reimann in a 1902 edition of compositions by the famous Mannheim School of composers that ‘there is no longer any doubt – Johann Stamitz is Haydn’s long-lost predecessor’, but it immediately dismisses that out of hand without any explanation. There may have been other influences upon Haydn, whether conscious or unconscious, and the transition between what we now call the Baroque and Classical eras may have been more complicated than a simple genealogical line from one composer to another. But the three Violin Concertos featured here – their dates unknown but No. 2, at least, surmised to come from towards the end of Stamitz’s life in 1757 – are an uncanny synthesis of the virtuosic displays of concertos for the same instrument by Vivaldi, with the emerging galant style which was to inform the compositional style of Haydn in his early period in the years immediately after the composer’s death as well as of many other composers at that time. Indeed, the rising arpeggio figure of the start of the second Violin Concerto – the characteristic ‘Mannheim rocket’ – anticipates its most famous at the opening of Mozart’s Fifth Concerto, K219 (1775).

The recording features vivacious, even excitable, performances of the solo violin part by David Castro-Balbi who ably and unfussily demonstrates these Concertos’ extraordinary displays of virtuosity with double-stopping, trills, broken chords, bariolage, and melodic pyrotechnics in the instrument’s highest registers, very much in the style of Vivaldi and such composers of the Italian Baroque, rather than the more sedate elegance of their younger contemporaries such as Tartini. Furthermore, these Concertos also utilise the ritornello form, with its structure of a recurring principal theme interspersed with more florid episodes for the soloist, which had been pioneered by the likes of Vivaldi right at the start of the 18th century. As the resin flies off the strings of Castro-Balbi’s instrument, the notes flash past as though in a snowstorm, perhaps just a little hazy in sonority sometimes, but without any impact upon the music’s brisk trajectory.

The sequences and suspensions of the final movements still evoke a Baroque fury, their energy threatening to burst the bounds of compositional and structural decorum. Rather it is the middle movements which tend to look ahead to a Classical sobriety, a singing solo line spun over gently, warmly repeated chords from the Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn, carefully sustained under Kevin Griffiths’s direction, with oboes and horns adding their own plangently held sonorities to the texture. 

Griffiths also brings out an effervescent momentum in the Symphony in E-flat major included here – certainly closer in character to examples by Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries in the decade after Stamitz’s death, and even featuring four movements, rather than three as many of those other composers’ earliest efforts do. In this performance the outer movements sparkle, the Andante is graceful and the Minuet encompasses a suitable stateliness though still one beat to a bar. But it is curious that Griffiths observes very little contrast in dynamics, least of all the dramatic alternations between forte and piano actually marked in the score, and for which the Mannheim orchestra was famous in the 18th century. Otherwise, this is a disc of stylish and sympathetic performances of works which few informed listeners would ever guess were written even before Handel or Telemann had died if they did not know the facts.

Curtis Rogers

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