Three late String Quartets by Johann Baptist Vanhal


Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813) is believed to have written somewhere in the vicinity of 100 string quartets, making him one of the most prolific composers in that genre. This CD contains three of his late quartets.

There is a story related in the album notes that goes something like this. One evening, at a “quartet party”, a group of musicians sat down together to play for a private audience. They performed one another’s string quartets. Vannhal played the cello, with violinists Haydn and Dittersdorf while Mozart played the viola. The story teller observes “the players were tolerable; not one of them excelled on the instrument he played”. He goes on though, to say “I was there, and a greater treat, or a more remarkable one, cannot be imagined.” Apparently, these “quartet parties” were rather common events. The development of the string quartet form is credited to Haydn with the publication his Op. 33 in 1781. In reality however, the form was not so much the creation of one composer as it was cultured by an exchange of ideas between several, as this particular petri dish of illustrious talent would suggest.

The influence of these composers, especially that of Haydn, is evident in Vanhal’s music. The ascribed opus number of “33″ to his set of 6 quartets that followed Haydn’s opus 33 is not considered to have been coincidental, but rather a tribute to the older composer. In areas of form, thematic development harmony and texture, Vanhal’s works are connected to the more sophisticated quartets of his famous friends. His inventive and very enjoyable music sits comfortably in this period of time when the Viennese classical style was born, and it is very interesting to hear a fresh voice in this literature.

The extremely fine performances on this Cavi music CD are by the period instrument Camesina Quartett, who play in a style and manner appropriate for the instruments they use. Their approach seems right to me – it is somewhat understated, not trying to make more of the music than what it is. Some of the writing for the first violin is treacherously high and difficult, and occasionally gets the better of the player here, but that is a quibble. This is a very fine album, well worth getting to know.

The sample below of Vanhal’s music is not from this CD, nor is it the Camesina Quartett, but it does give a sense of the music here.