Classical Music Review: New Releases

Johann Baptist Vanhal - Missa Pastoralis and Missa Solemnis.  Missa Pastoralis in G major (WeinmannXIX:G4); Missa Solemnis in C major (Weinmann XIX: C7).  Mary Enid Haines, Colin Ainsworth, Nina Scott Stoddart, Steven Pitkanen (soloists); TOWER Voice New Zealand (Chorus Master: Karen Grylls); Arcadia Ensemble, Uwe Grodd (Conductor).  Naxos 8.555080 (68'28).

Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813) exists on the periphery of contemporary musical consciousness.  He is best remembered for playing the cello with Haydn, Mozart and Dittersdorf in 1785, when the four composers played through a set of six of Mozart's quartets.  As for Vanhal's music, Allan Badley writes that "[l]ong after his death and when his multitude of symphonies, quartets and concertos lay forgotten, Vanhal's Masses and motets continued to be performed in cathedrals and churches throughout Austria, Bohemia and the South of Germany."  Readers of the English musicologist and traveler, Charles Burney, will recognize Vanhal as the "educated young man" who performed on the harpsichord and violin in 1772.  Vanhal in his youth suffered from a nervous disorder that gave rise to music of "delightful extravagance," but Burney found his more recent compositions "rather insignificant and banal."

The two Masses recorded here suggest that neither extravagance nor banality appropriately characterizes Vanhal's compositions.  Rather, one hears a composer imbued in the early classical idiom with a strong sense of melody, imaginative taste in instrumentation, and a firm but not extraordinary command of counterpoint.  While they lack the overarching structure of Haydn's finest Masses, both pieces are filled with deft touches such as the lovely duet between the two female leads in the Benedictus of the C major Mass.  Like much music from the mid eighteenth century, these works wear their virtuosity lightly.

The TOWER Voices New Zealand form an excellent choir and Uwe Grodd's conducting is sure-handed and rhythmically spry.  This is a highly enjoyable release.

Tony Gualtieri