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Vanhal: 3 Cello Concertos by Peter Szabó

In 1784, a famous quartet of composers gathered for an evening of music making among friends. Consisting of Joseph Haydn on 1st violin, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf on 2nd violin, Wolfgang Mozart on viola and Jan Vanhal (1739-1813) on cello, they played each other’s string quartets that night. While Vanhal was renowned as a violinist, he must also have been proficient on that instrument as well. The virtuosic solo writing he supplies for these 3 cello concertos offers convincing proof.

All three date from the mid 1780’s, approximately the same time period as that legendary evening. Discovered in manuscript form in the National Museum of Prague by Peter Szabo, the cellist and leader of Sinfonietta Pannonica, they follow the standard fast-slow-fast pattern. Complete with horns and tympani, the first C Major Concerto opens with a regal intro to the initial ‘Allegro moderato’. Entering in the lower register with double stopping and majestic flourishes, the solo cello quickly turns this genial 1st movement into a display of finger busting dexterity.

A gentle ‘Adagio’ allows the warm, lush tone of Szabo to emerge. Using a tasteful vibrato, it is especially appealing as he reaches high on the A String. Trumpets and tympani return for the rousing finale, a brisk ‘Allegro’ that features more double stops and string crossings at high speed, which are particularly impressive in the concluding cadenza.

Penned in A Major, the second concerto begins with a sedate ‘Allegro moderato’. Over marching string accompaniment, stutter step triplets from the cello create a spirited rhythmic interplay. Sweetly serene, a delicate ‘Adagio’ follows, briefly dipping in minor before drifting to a quiet end. A hearty ‘Allegro’ closes the work, bringing more rhythmic spark than is found in most of the other fast outer movements. With an urgency reminiscent of his earlier Sturm und Drang symphonies, it is one of highpoints of the CD. Featuring an engaging melody and deft orchestral support in the lower strings including a marvelously active double bass line, this finale contains difficult passage work for the cello, spun in the instrument’s lower register and delivered flawlessly at a blistering pace.

Skillful use of symphonic exchanges also marks the opening of the amiable ‘Allegro’ of the 2nd concerto in C Major. With just a hint of melancholic undertone, bravura fiddling from the solo string fills this sparkling 1st movement. After a gauzy ‘Adagio’, a brawny ‘Rondo’ ensues with an energetic cello appearing immediately after the lightning strike of the opening chords. Showing flashes of passion that are often lacking, this brief finale is a splendid conclusion.

The recording by Hungaroton is first rate, bringing intimacy to the adagios and a rich depth to the orchestral passages. Peter Szabo is excellent, demonstrating superb technique while revealing the beauty of the slower sections. While lacking some of the urgent vitality of the symphonies composed during his Sturm und Drang period, and missing the intricate playfulness that is found in his string quartets, these concertos do reveal a mature Vanhal pushing the cello within the boundaries of that genre.

Customer Review on September 22, 2015 


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