Kraus, Koželuh, JS Bach, CPE Bach, Schubert
The wonderful Mozarteum Orchestra, under its principal guest conductor Giovanni Antonini presented a concert of historical curiosities in the Mozarteum this evening. The music was beautifully played (as expected with this orchestra), and was pleasant enough (if not perhaps better suited in temperament for one of their Sunday morning concerts rather than a Thursday evening), but in the end, some composers probably deserve to be forgotten.
The concert opened with the Symphony in c, VB 142, by Joseph Martin Kraus, a German who spent most of his career as a court composer in Sweden and was almost an exact contemporary of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (born a few months after Mozart, died a year after him). Kraus composed this symphony in Vienna, and it seems likely (although not fully confirmed) that Joseph Haydn gave its premiere. Haydn is said to have liked this work – but when compared to the master, one wonders if he was just being polite to a friend. While perfectly nice music (perhaps for a sleepy Sunday morning), it simply said nothing and went nowhere – and considering there was Haydn, there really was no need for Kraus.
Next up came the oboe concerto in F by Jan Antonín Koželuh, a Czech composer slightly younger than Haydn but with a similarly long lifespan. Of course, if I want an oboe concerto from this period, I would turn to one by Ludwig August Lebrun (a composer who is mostly forgotten, but in my opinion not justifiably – and Lebrun’s oboe concerti are probably the pinnacle of the Fach for that instrument). But Koželuh’s it was. I suppose the third movement was playful, at least, but we had to get to it. Again, perfectly nice music, but nothing to get excited about. The solo oboist was Albrecht Mayer, the principal oboist of the Berlin Philharmonic, who had a strong but sweet tone (actually, surprisingly sweet for an oboe – normally when oboists sound sweet, they lack substance – I am a fan of the bold nasal twang of the instrument – but that was not the case here, both sweet and substantive).
Mayer and a small ensemble from the orchestra then performed an encore by Johann Sebastian Bach to head into intermission. After the intermission came a brief symphony in F by one of JS Bach’s sons: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a bit older than the pre-intermission group but overlapping, with this symphony falling in the late 1700s as well. There is of course also a reason that when people refer to “Bach” they mean the father and not one of his composer sons. Not that the sons wrote bad music, but they did not rise to the level of the father. Of course in their lifetimes they were well-regarded, but JS Bach has withstood the test of time, with his mathematically-gifted creations.
Some curiosities also withstand the test of time, as was the case of the concert’s final work. It is not clear why Franz Schubert never finished what is known as his “Unfinished” Symphony. Whatever the reason, he abandoned it and never intended to publish the two movements he did write (a sketch of the opening of a third movement exists, but is in no shape to perform), which reappeared several decades after his death and entered the standard repertory for good reason. Antonini started off this performance a bit disjointed, while the orchestra tried to be lyrical – it took until a few minutes into the first movement for them to work out a happy compromise, moving out of the classical period (as for Kraus, Koželuh, and CPE Bach) and fully into the dramatic nineteenth century. But they got there, and sent us off smiling into the night. If the other composers were forgettable (albeit worth hearing once for sake of curiosity), Schubert most certainly is not forgettable.