Regular readers probably know by now that I have a fondness for Musical Concepts and their commitment to reissuing “worthy titles,” many of which had previously been available only on vinyl. Last month they released on their alto label a 1968 recording of the eight symphonies in the Opus 2 of English composer William Boyce, which I had previously known as a Turnabout vinyl. The Württemberg Chamber Orchestra of Heilbronn was conducted by Jörg Faerber.
This collection was published in 1760 by John Walsh, who was also publisher for George Frideric Handel. It is important to note that this was a transitional period for the semantics of “symphony” (or “sinfonia”). When Johann Sebastian Bach used the noun, it basically referred to what we would now call an “overture,” an instrumental introduction, often with multiple movements, to vocal music, either sacred or secular. We encounter the same terminology in Handel’s operas. On the other hand, when Bach’s son Emanuel was in the service of Frederick the Great, the symphonies that he composed were intended as multiple-movement concert works that would be performed in their own right.
Each of Boyce’s symphonies has a title. Some of these are clearly occasional, such as the “New Year Ode” in B-flat major or the “Birthday Ode” in A major. The one entitled “Solomon” (in F major) suggested that it was written to introduce some performance based on the Old Testament; and the term “overture” actually shows up in the last composition in the collection (in D minor), entitled “Worcester Overture.” On this recording, however, all eight of these “symphonies” are presented for stand-alone performance; and, under Faerber’s generally brisk leadership, they all hold up very well. For those who might think this is too much of a good thing, Boyce varies instrumentation, meaning that there is both thematic and sonorous diversity across the entire collection.
The recording also includes two “bonus” selections. Faerber conducts the Mainz Chamber Orchestra with trumpeter Walter Holy in a performance of Leopold Mozart’s D major trumpet concerto. This composition is in only two movements, the first of which is an Adagio. At a time when most composers (including Boyce) saw the trumpet as suitable only for martial connotation, Mozart (father of Wolfgang Amadeus) provided some of the most rapturously lyrical music for solo trumpet that can be found anywhere in the instrument’s repertoire. (Wynton Marsalis was particularly perceptive when he decided to include this concerto on his debut classical album.)
The other “bonus” selection is a G major cassation for orchestra and toys, best known as the “Toy Symphony.” This recording names the elder Mozart as composer. The music was originally assumed to be by Joseph Haydn; but scholars now tend to agree that Mozart was the composer (except for those who now lean in favor of Michael Haydn). This is “fun music,” regardless of who composed it; and Faerber’s meat-and-potatoes approach to the score makes the boisterous intrusion of the toys all the more amusing.
Taken as a whole, this recording is a “blast from the past” that definitely deserves revisiting.