JOHANN WILHELM WILMS: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4; Overture in D – NDR Radio Philharmonic/ Howard Griffiths, conductor – CPO

by | Aug 31, 2009 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

JOHANN WILHELM WILMS: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4; Overture in D – NDR Radio Philharmonic/ Howard Griffiths, conductor – CPO Multichannel SACD 777 209, 65:13 ***** [Distr. by Naxos]:

Wilms (1772-1847) was born about 25 meters northeast of Cologne, yet made his name, such as it is, is from Amsterdam. As you can see by his dates, he straddled some tough times for competition, finishing out the end of Haydn’s illustrious career and yet having to compete with Beethoven’s new and formidable compositional ethos as well.  He was able almost immediately upon his arrival in the Netherlands to gain employment as a flutist in several orchestras, and performed as a piano virtuoso along with teaching the instrument. Though he was successful as a composer he was never able to make a full time career; he had a plethora of prizes and a lot of notoriety but lacked the time to make a go at it. On top of it all, his wife died at age 35, and his sixth symphony, Opus 58 (1823) was the last work of his to see printer’s ink. (He did complete a seventh, published posthumously.) Because of late blindness, generational apathy towards his style, and probably awareness that he had missed his time, the last 24 years of his life were to be ones of manifold musical decline until his death at age 75.

Yet had I been present on New Year’s Day 1806 at the Gewandhaus I would have been thrilled to hear his First Symphony in C Major. Though obviously inspired by Beethoven’s same number, the work is a fresh approach of Haydn through and through.  The rustic feeling of much of the music, a life-affirming and thoroughly inspiring romp through sonata-form, makes for a profoundly invigorating experience well worth many repeated hearings.

By the time we get to the darker and more serious Fourth Symphony in C-minor, seven years have passed and the public is well aware of the composer’s prowess and intrinsic worth—the piece was a roaring success. Its mysterious coloration and tonal shifts, ending in a blaze of C major glory in the forth movement make it a worthy contender with the symphonies of Haydn and Beethoven, even while not quite matching that unparalleled level of inspiration—and it seems that contemporary critics agreed wholeheartedly.

The Overture is one of five for full orchestra that number among his last works. The one given here is the first of that group and it is splendid indeed, a three-trombone blaster, the primary theme used as counterpoint to the secondary theme and a long coda leading to a rambunctious finish.

Howard Griffiths has long been a favorite conductor of mine, surely first-rate among those mentioned only rarely, and deserving of much more, though those in the know have long appreciated him. The NDR orchestra is putty in his hands, and CPO gives him great surround sound that is rich and deeply balanced. I hope we get all seven symphonies and the remaining four overtures; it will make a nice compliment to the superb set of symphonies by Ferdinand Ries already available, and led by Griffiths.

— Steven Ritter

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