Despite his popularity and wide recognition as one of Vienna's foremost composers, relatively little is known about Haydn's close contemporary Johann Baptist Vaňhal (Wanhal). One of the most interesting aspects of his career is that he made a decision relatively early in life to live as a freelance musician rather than accept the post of Kapellmeister to his patron, Baron Riesch. Paul Bryan, the leading Vaňhal authority, has suggested that his motivation for doing so can be traced to his origins as the son of bonded parents. Having literally purchased his freedom in the 1760s, he had no intention of ever again exposing himself to the whims of a capricious employer, preferring instead to live entirely on his wits. His freelance career was very successful and in some respects mirrored that of Mozart. He taught, composed on commission, and turned increasingly to publication as a means of earning his living. During the latter part of his career he abandoned writing the symphonies that had won him fame throughout Europe and turned instead to the composition of works based around the keyboard. These included not only a large number of sonatas, sets of variations, dances and other small-scale works, but also imaginative programmatic works such as The Battle of Trafalgar and Death of the English Admiral Nelson (1806). While it is true to say that by 1813, the year of his death, Vaňhal was considered something of a relic from the past, his keyboard music continued to be played by amateurs and his church works, of which he composed many, remained at the heart of the repertory for decades.
Vaňhal was a prolific and popular composer of concertos. His total output, which runs to over sixty works, can be compared with that of Leopold Hofmann whose concertos also enjoyed great popularity during the 1760s and 1770s. Like Hofmann, Vaňhal did not write concertos exclusively for his own use, although he doubtless played a number of them when and where occasion demanded. There is little way of knowing for whom the majority of them were written, given the scope of his freelance activities, but the fact that so many of the works were published – or found their way into contemporary thematic catalogues – suggests that he sought a wide public for them. As one would expect, the most important works numerically are the keyboard concertos, twenty in number, and the seventeen violin concertos. Vaňhal, who also played the violoncello, composed three concertos for viola, four for violoncello, two for double bass, five for oboe or flute, and four for bassoon. It is impossible to assign accurate composition dates to any of the concertos although corroborative dating from contemporary catalogues, publishers' announcements, and the evolution of Vaňhal's style, makes it possible at least to group the works into three broad categories: early concertos, 'transitional' concertos, and later concertos – those composed from around the mid-1770s.
Vaňhal, like most of his professional colleagues, was a very proficient violinist, although he was not regarded as a virtuoso like Dittersdorf, or, to a lesser extent, Hofmann. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that the violin concertos were written first and foremost for his own use. A more likely scenario is that he wrote them for other performers, perhaps the leaders of the orchestras with whom he worked on a regular basis. It is interesting that Vaňhal, who was unusually active in publishing his works, does not seem to have shown any inclination to publish the violin concertos. This stands in sharp contrast to the keyboard concertos and flute concertos, for example, both of which are reasonably well represented in early prints. This may be an indication that he lost control of the material. Although around half the works identified by Weinmann found their way into the Breitkopf Catalogue, comparatively few copies are extant. The authenticity of the remaining works is by no means certain as most survive in a single copy and two of those are incomplete. It is tempting to speculate that Vaňhal wrote a number of violin concertos for one or other of the great Austrian monasteries, since copies of the works can be found in Melk, Schlägl and Seitenstetten. Unfortunately all three monasteries also collected concertos by Leopold Hofmann, among others, which weakens, although does not entirely disprove, this idea.
The three violin concertos featured on this recording were composed before 1772 and share many common stylistic features with other concertos of the period. The leisurely first movements are an amalgam of short, rhythmically active themes, broader cantabile-style contrasting themes and bravura passage-work. The slow movements are more reflective in character, elegant rather than highly charged emotionally, but beautifully tailored to exploit the lyrical qualities of the violin. The finales resemble the first movements in many respects although the themes themselves are more modern in their phrase morphology and demonstrate a strong kinship with the driving finales of Vaňhal's symphonies.
On the basis of the number of extant sources, the most popular of Vaňhal 's violin concertos appears to have been the Concerto in B flat major (Weinmann IIb:Bb1), which survives in no fewer than six copies. It is this concerto that also establishes a connection with Mozart. Although there is no evidence that Mozart and Vaňhal met prior to the famous quartet party recalled in his memoirs by the Irish tenor Michael Kelly (at which Vaňhal played string quartets with Haydn, Mozart and Dittersdorf), the older composer's music was almost certainly known by him even before his move to Vienna: several of Vaňhal's symphonies circulated in Salzburg during the 1770s and it seems improbable that Mozart would not have encountered any other works during his extensive travels. In a letter written to his father from Augsburg, dated 23/25 October 1777, Mozart reported:
Last Sunday I attended the service at Holy Cross. And at 10 o'clock I went to see Herr
Stein. That was the 19th [and] we rehearsed a couple of symphonies for the concert.
After that I ate with my hosts at Holy Cross: during the meal some music was performed.
Badly as they play, I nevertheless prefer the orchestra at the monastery to that of
Augsburg. I gave a symphony and played Vaňhal's violin concerto in B flat, to universal
It is fascinating that Mozart should have chosen to play this concerto when during the same stay he performed one of his own, the Concerto in G major, K. 216. There might be a mundane explanation for this, but one cannot imagine Mozart deigning to perform a work by another composer if he thought it poor stuff. Whatever the case, he must have had ready access to a full set of parts in order to play it and this argues strongly for a copy with Salzburg associations. The only set of parts that survives today, to which Mozart might conceivably have had access, is preserved in Zagreb. This manuscript was once part of the collection of Nikola Udina-Algarotti, a professor at the Benedictine University at Salzburg and later in Zagreb. Although it is not certain that the manuscript itself derives from Salzburg, it represents a connection, however tenuous, with the Mozarts: it is not out of the question that the source derives from the copy used by Wolfgang to perform the concerto or from a third source common to both. The Zagreb copy differs in many small ways from another set of parts preserved in the Austrian Benedictine Monastery at Seitenstetten, an important source for Vaňhal's violin concertos. The edition upon which this recording is based incorporates many details from the Zagreb source in an attempt to present the concerto in a form that Mozart might have known it. These variants not only include dynamic markings and articulations but even changes of pitch which subtly alter the melodic contour in places.
Mozart's performance clearly impressed those who heard it and we must assume that the work was also chosen with some care to show off his strengths as a violinist. Like Mozart's own concertos, Vaňhal's B flat Violin Concerto is not a work that calls for exceptional virtuosity. Its carefully sculpted lines and spare orchestral textures call for precision, beauty of tone and consummate musicianship to reveal the work's many beauties.
Violin Concerto in G major (Weinmann IIB: G3)(more info)