Johann Stamitz: Flute Concertos / Aitken, Katkus

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J. W. STAMITZ Flute Concertos: in D; in C; in D; in G Robert Aitken (fl); Donatas Katkus, cond; St. Christopher CO NAXOS 8.570150 (69:15)

The music of Johann Stamitz (1717–57) is largely known through a handful of works. For clarinetists, the B? Concerto is arguably one of (if not the) earliest written for the instrument that uses both the upper clarion and the lower chalumeau registers, and thus earns its reputation for its modernity. Orchestral trios foreshadow the emerging symphony; and his later works, including the La melodia germanica series published in Paris in 1756, not only are some of the earliest to establish the four-movement conventional symphonic pattern, but they also popularized the orchestral effects associated with the Mannheim orchestra, of which Stamitz was the concertmaster. These include rapid scales (the so-called coup d’archet ), the layered crescendo (the original Mannheim steamroller), and the rapidly ascending triads known as the Mannheim rocket. Less well known is the fact that he was a prolific composer, who, in his position, was able to experiment with the capabilities of his instruments, the various textures that could be obtained, and with form and structure. As a result, his efforts had far-reaching impacts upon the music and composers that followed him.

Stamitz was active during a period that one either can characterize as galant or (to borrow a term from literature) empfindsam . Both of these are tricky to translate accurately in musical terms, the former meaning something like “polite” or “well bred” and the latter “emotional” or “sensitive” (and there are other words that work as well). But what it really means for the listener is that there is a new sense of freedom to explore the capabilities of the music, to play with rhythm and contrast, and to develop new genres and styles. This disc presents four of his flute concertos, probably written for Johann Baptist Wendling, a flutist who was arguably one of the best of the entire century. Considering that the instrument was made of wood and had only a couple of keys, both the tone production and technical capability was limited, making the instrument more appropriate to chamber work than playing versus an orchestra, particularly one the size and power of Mannheim. In all four works, Stamitz demonstrates a skill that focuses on a dazzling display of technical virtuosity that is rarely overshadowed by the accompaniment. Even when he adds horns, as he does in the two D-Major concertos, the use is sensitive to the overall sonority. As for the flute part itself, if the listener, spoiled by the long, lyrical lines and regular phrases of the two Mozart pieces, seeks such in these works, disappointment will follow. Instead, there is a virtual compendium of pyrotechnics that leaves the listener breathless (not to mention the poor flutist). Rapid runs, leaps between registers, perpetual-motion figuration, and the rapid oscillation between duple and triple rhythms make this a flute virtuoso’s delight, as these works push the envelope of what is technically possible with the instrument. Moreover, in the C-Major Concerto, even the orchestral ritornello is technically demanding for the strings. These are not student works, but require the utmost of agility and ability to perform.

Aitken, fortunately, is quite up to the task. He takes the break-neck tempos of the opening movements with apparent ease and clarity of tone, allowing the display to come through. In the slow movements, he pulls back the throttle, but never enough to dull the sometimes-sensitive lyrical writing. For instance, in the C-Major Concerto, the second movement’s minor key, replete with echo effects, is delineated with precision and displays considerable musical deftness. In the G-Major final movement, he allows for the folk-like main theme to peer through the leaps and runs, providing a contrast that is both pleasing and a welcome relief to the pyrotechnics. Only occasionally does he blur his scales and leaps, though this may be an aftereffect of using a modern instrument.

The Lithuanian St. Christopher group provides a precise and understated accompaniment. One might have wished for more presence in the recording, but perhaps this was a decision by the sound engineer to focus on the flute. It is true that the music on this disc is mostly all about the flute and its ability, and this lends a certain sameness to each of the concertos, but if one concentrates upon the remarkable technical display, then one will find a perfect example of what can happen when a composer of this pivotal period pushes the aerobatic envelope of a more reticent and intimate instrument. We would be lucky to have the remaining 10 recorded in the future. Highly recommended.

FANFARE: Bertil van Boer

Johann Stamitz is a name well known in musical history, but his voice is seldom heard. This latest Naxos disc of flute concertos - two volumes of symphonies and one of orchestral trios are already available - is therefore a welcome release.

Famous as a virtuoso violinist and then as Kapellmeister of the celebrated Mannheim court orchestra, Stamitz presided over the establishment of that band of players and over the development of what became the ‘Mannheim style’ – disciplined playing, thrilling dynamics and innovative instrumentation. He played a key role in developing the symphonic form, and in transforming musical composition from the Baroque style to the nascent Classical sound.

As well as symphonies, Stamitz left behind a large number of concertos, including fourteen for flute. The four featured on this disc probably date from the 1750s and may well have been played by the Elector Carl Theodor, and by Mannheim virtuoso Johann Baptist Wendling, who so impressed Mozart on his visit to Paris in 1763 and Mannheim in 1777-78.

They are beautiful works, but the main problem is that there is little to distinguish one from the other. The two D major concertos in particular sound very much alike, although the horn parts in the second at least differentiate it from it predecessor. The C major concerto’s shift into C minor for the slow Andante offers some tonal variety, while rapid triplet figures for the soloist in the first movement keep the momentum alive.

But one cannot escape the feeling that these works were really vehicles for Wendling’s – or someone else’s – prodigious talents. Attention therefore falls on soloist Robert Aitken. His flawless technique and lightness of touch make him perfectly suited to this kind of repertoire. He is particularly impressive in the hugely demanding cadenzas in each concerto, although his forward positioning in the recording can make the flute sound a little shrill on the ear in some of the higher registers.

For their part, the St Christopher (formerly Vilnius) Chamber Orchestra under Donatus Katkus have few opportunities to shine. Nevertheless, they keep the accompaniment chugging along nicely, hinting at Haydnesque and Mozartian sounds to come.

-- John-Pierre Joyce, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: November 17, 2009

  • Catalog Number: 8570150

  • UPC: 747313015078

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Johann Wenzel Stamitz

  • Conductor: Donatas Katkus

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra Lithuania

  • Performer: Robert Aitken