Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809): Symphonies Op. 4, Nos. 1-3, Op. 3, No. 6 / Czech CO, Pardubice

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In the mind of many of us, "Papa" Haydn is granted parentage for the birth of the symphony (although in reality, it's much less a "birth" at all than one continuous gestation). Certainly, Haydn wrote some 30 symphonies before Mozart wrote his first, and he did establish a basic form that has lasted for centuries, however, there's many a fine symphonist from the time leading up to Haydn's defining works. One such composer is the German Franz Ingaz Beck (1734-1809), who is practically an exact contemporary of Haydn. Beck's remarkable symphonies have already appeared on two Naxos CDs, impeccably performed by Marek Štilec and the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice; the album being recommended here is the third in the series.

It was the Italians who led the way in the transition from Baroque concerto to pre-classical symphony. Although we could trace roots going back further, early symphonic form is encapsulated in the Baroque Italian opera overture. These were typically in three sections (which explains why the earliest symphonies are in three movements), alternating fast-slow-fast. In terms of structure, thematic style and texture, older Baroque characteristics gave way to more concise themes, a clarity of form, more tutti than solo sections and an overall more homophonic texture. Although sonata form (so important to the mature Classical symphony) didn't fully evolve until decades later, examples from the lexicon can be heard in these early works, such as exposition, development, recapitulation, transition and so on. This along with the gradual abandonment of both basso continuo and the use of the harpsichord set the stage for Haydn to write his ground-breaking works.

Beck's own contributions to the genre included him embracing the four movement form and, more significantly, granting a more prominent role to the wind instruments in his orchestra. In earlier symphonies, winds typically supported the melodic material in the strings. With Beck, pairs of oboes and horns added color and contrast, especially apparent in his common usage of presenting his first theme in the strings, and assigning the second theme to the winds. If you are listening to the sample from the album provided in the sidebar, you are already hearing all of this.

With their taut formal design, dramatic character, daring harmonic progressions and Beck's skillful ability to hold his listener in suspense for extended periods of development, these symphonies are highly rewarding and enjoyable to hear. Beck wrote 24 symphonies, all during the early part of his career before apparently losing interest in the genre. What a shame. On evidence of what we hear on this recording, Beck may have matured into one of music history's great symphonists.

Franz Ignaz Beck: Symphony in B flat major, Op. 12 No. 4