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  41:1 (09-10 /2017)
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CPO 7779932 

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Reviewer: Jerry Dubins

I know this is probably silly, but when you have six like works, numbered 1 through 6, collected under a single opus number, and they all fit comfortably onto a single disc, as do these six symphonies by Carl Abel, why would you program them in a seemingly random order, as listed in the above headnote? Going on 25 years ago now, I purchased these symphonies on a still available Chandos CD with Adrian Shepherd leading the modern-instrument ensemble Cantilena, where the works are programmed in their published numerical order. Since each is a self-contained, stand-alone work, and there’s really no more logic to the progression of keys in the original order than there is to the logic in this programmed order, the sequence that you listen to these symphonies in shouldn’t make any difference, but I just find the reordering slightly annoying. Chalk it up to my latent OCD.

That aside, there are a couple of interesting things to note about these symphonies, which were composed circa 1767 and published in 1769. A facsimile of the handwritten parts may be found on imslp.org’s website. The scoring is fairly modest: violins I and II, viola, basso (which I take to be cello), two oboes, and two corni da caccia (hunting horns). The first point of interest is that the single-line basso part—you’d expect it to be a single line for a string instrument—is additionally notated with superscripted figured bass numbers. This tells me that Abel intended and expected a harpsichord or fortepiano to play continuo along with the ensemble. Most likely, he led the performances from the keyboard himself. There’s no other explanation for the figured bass notation; yet, if a keyboard is used in these performances, it’s so discreet that it’s inaudible.

The second point of interest is the scoring for the corni da caccia, which are clearly called for on the title page of the six collected works. Exactly what instrument Abel had in mind—horns of this period came in various sizes, shapes, configurations, and bores—of one thing we can be certain: Abel was writing for a natural horn, since valves had not yet been invented. With all advances, however, something is gained and something is lost. Just as later generations of keyboard players would lose the facility to realize figured bass parts at sight, later generations of horn probably would lose the facility to transpose on the spot. Still, not many, I suspect, would willingly trade their computer’s word processor and printer for a feather quill and inkpot.

The German-born Carl Friedrich Abel (1723–1787) came under the tutelage of Johann Sebastian Bach, when the family moved to Leipzig. Bach thought highly enough of his young student to recommend him to Adolph Hasse’s court orchestra in Dresden, where Abel remained for 15 years. He then left for England, where he served as a chamber musician at the court of Queen Charlotte. Abel’s move to England was a lucky stroke, for it was in London in 1762 that he hooked up with his previous acquaintance from Germany, Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian. Together the two men established the Bach-Abel concerts, which gave the English premieres of many of Haydn’s works.

As entrepreneur and professional musician, Abel was a successful man of his time. As a composer, he was less so. His symphonies—some 30 of them—and concertos for flute, violin, and cello were well received by audiences during his lifetime, but their popularity in England was eclipsed, mainly by the works of Haydn, and Abel’s legacy didn’t really survive him. The problem for Abel—and largely for Johann Christian Bach as well—was that formally and stylistically, he was caught in an earlier transitional moment between the Baroque and Classical periods.

As an instrumentalist, Abel was a master of the viola da gamba, at a time when the day of the viols was done. As a composer, Abel was still writing three-movement sinfonias—that’s what they’re designated on the title pages of each of these scores, and that’s what they are. Movements are short—on average, under four minutes—and there’s little evidence that Abel grasped the profound and far-reaching import of sonata-allegro form. Outer movements—Allegros and Prestos—are upbeat, ebullient, and scintillating, while the slower movements sandwiched between them—mainly Andantes—are models of the so-called Style galant. It’s well to remember that Abel was German-born and trained, and that by the time he moved to England he was in his mid-30s. That accounts for the fact that what you will hear in these “symphonies” closely resembles the like works of those composers that are often labeled “contemporaries of Mozart”—namely, Karl Stamitz, Franz Krommer, Paul Wranitzky, and Ignace Pleyel—though I think “contemporaries of Haydn” would be just as fitting, if not more so.

On several occasions now, I’ve sung the praises of Michael Schneider’s La Stagione Frankfurt period instrument band, and this latest release is no exception. There may be other period instrument ensembles that equal La Stagione for tonal refinement, technical perfection, elegance, and style, but none I know of that surpasses it. Over 20 years ago, by the way, in 1993, the group recorded Abel’s Six Symphonies, op. 10 (CPO 999 207-2), which, incidentally, are programmed on that disc in numerical order. If you don’t already have that earlier release, I can recommend it every bit as strongly as I can recommend this new one of Abel’s op. 7 Symphonies.

P.S. If you’re avid for Abel, in 1994, CPO also recorded the composer’s Six Symphonies, op. 17 (also programmed in numerical order on the disc), but with Anthony Halstead and the Hannover Band instead of Schneider and La Stagione.

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