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Briefly Noted: Birth of the Symphony

available at Amazon
Birth of the Symphony, Academy of Ancient Music, R. Egarr

(released on November 19, 2013)
AAM 001 | 70'56"
Ensembles deciding to release all of their recordings on a private label are not new. The trend began small with the Tallis Scholars in 1980, and it was first attractive to niche outfits, like Orange Mountain Music, established in 2001 to distribute recordings principally of music by Philip Glass. Still, the big guns have been moving in that direction, too: the London Symphony Orchestra made the leap in 2000, followed by Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra of John Eliot Gardiner in 2005 and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2007. The trend continues to gain strength, with the Choir of King's College, Cambridge launching its own label in 2012. Now the Academy of Ancient Music has released Birth of the Symphony, the first recording on its private label, AAM Records, this past fall, a survey of the early symphony in the 18th century. (Les Arts Florissants has just joined the pack, too -- more about that later.)

Such a project, to give a glimpse of the efflorescence of the new genre of the symphony, is quixotic: in the words of Dr. Stephen Rose at Royal Holloway in London, who wrote the booklet essay for this disc, "Over 10,000 symphonies were written between 1740 and 1800, for performance in places as far afield as Finland, North Carolina, Sicily and Poland." There are vast bodies of music that are almost entirely unknown to the general listener. Scratching the surface, Richard Egarr leads the ensemble through five selections that span time and distance. In Handel's Sinfonia from the oratorio Saul, from 1738, he leads from the harpsichord and the music is largely dance-influenced, with some pleasing solo diversions, for the oboe especially. We travel to Mannheim next, one of the important centers for the new genre, with two three-movement sinfonias by Franz Xaver Richter (c. 1740) and Johann Stamitz (c. 1750), still with the harpsichord as anchor and neither much longer than the Handel piece. These composers had a strong influence on the young Mozart, whose first attempt at a symphony at age eight, K. 16, follows -- again about the same length and still with harpsichord. (In the third movement, there is a strange sound at 0:28, which sounds like paper being crumpled, but could be just a digital artifact, heard only while listening via Naxos Music Library.) We reach the "classical symphony" as most would recognize it only with the final selection, Haydn's symphony no. 49 (F minor, "La Passione"). The playing on all these pieces is effervescent, with Egarr's harpsichord figuration adding a delightful rhythmic springiness to the first four symphonies, somewhat missed in the Haydn work, composed only four years after the Mozart, where Egarr serves only as conductor.

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