Johann Baptist VANHAL: Six Quartets, Op. 6 – Eybler Quartet – Brilliant Classics

Johann Baptist VANHAL: Six Quartets, Op. 6 – Eybler Quartet – Brilliant Classics 17003, 70: 10 (4/27/17) *** 1/2: 

Charming works from a one-time illustrious contemporary of Haydn in the same formative Classical style.

(Julia Wedman; violin I/ Aislinn Nosky; violin II/ Patrick Jordan; viola/ Margaret Gay; cello)

The Eybler Quartet takes its name from a lesser known early composer of the 18th century string quartet, Joseph Leopold Eybler. On this recording they advance the cause of a similarly neglected Viennese composer Johann Vanhal, an almost exact contemporary of Haydn, who was improbably, it seems to us now, more celebrated and published in his day than either Haydn or Mozart. Only recently did I encounter a symphony by Vanhal and never any of his quartets, so I was much intrigued by the claim that he was a “significant innovator in the development of the Classical or Viennese style.” This is all the more remarkable, considering that Vanhal was born in servitude and thus rose from a social position far lower even than Haydn, and eventually achieved independence free of court or municipal control, a position achieved just briefly by Mozart.

This group was assembled from members of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and are skilled practitioners of historically informed practice (HIP). As an ensemble, they are tight and focused, with an outstanding blend of what must be old fiddles and authentic bows. The interest in this recital lies in the notion that this music will let us into the laboratory that saw the concoction of the Classical rhetoric. Where does it stand in relationship to Haydn’s groundbreaking opus 20? Are there interesting Italianate influences, something of the old learned counterpoint, as a result of Vanhal’s formative travels and studies in Italy. How much can we thank this pioneering research quartet for introducing us to Vanhal rather than serving up the 100th recording of the “Sun” quartets?

Answering these questions in reverse order: We can be very grateful for these superlative performances of this music, for they are pieces of great melodic inventiveness. Moreover, the level of ensemble integration puts them a full notch over the routine Viennese garden music of the Haydn divertimenti. The cello has a prominent and independent voice, and it is a sumptuous instrument. As for the Italian influence, there is none, neither imitation nor fugal passages such as still remain the Haydn opus 20 masterpieces. One wonders if this new advancement (or retreat) from the old polyphony is a source of their widespread popularity. It is music of great lightness.

As to the last question as how they stand up to the familiar benchmarks of this style as represented by Haydn’s mature works opus 20, 33 and 50, we must admit that they fall well short. This is for a peculiar stylistic reason. Apparently, Vanhal did not care for the minors keys, perhaps it aggravated a chronic dyspepsia or put an emotionally labile patron in a fretful mood. But for whatever reason, these pieces bounce from one cheerful tune to the next without scarcely visiting the darker modes, so important in the rhetoric of Haydn. They evoke the image of a countryside excursion in Provence. The sun dazzles, and one squints at the splendid butterflies and shimmering dew drops everywhere. But when it is time to seek shade, none is to be found, and one wishes for a parasol. The occasional minor chord that stumbles along is thus treated as a special pleasure.

In spite of this constricted palette, the music does not lack for variety of key, tempo or colloquial geniality. In fact, Vanhal shows a greater predilection for slow movements than Haydn, whose wit operated best at mid to bright tempos.

There are six quartets in six different keys, the longest over 14 minutes and none shorter than 10. Each is a model of balance and grace. It is easy to see why these works were paragons of the early classical form. But just as easily, one can see why their lack of weight allowed them to be blown away by the winds of time. Other ensembles will probably find their way to these still charming pieces, and they will have a hard time measuring up to the standards of the excellent Eybler Quartet. Brilliant Classics has done their usual first-rate work on the liner notes and the excellent sonics.

—Fritz Balwit

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