Friday, April 22, 2011

Dittersdorf: 6 Symphonies after Ovid's Metamorphoses

Carl Ditters Von Dittersdorf
6 Symphonies after Ovid's Metamorphoses
Cantilena, Adrian Shepherd
Chandos CHAN 8564-5

Dittersdorfs Six Symphonies after Ovid's Metamorphoses, written about the time of Haydn's "Paris" Symphonies and Mozart's Prague Symphony, are less conventional than either, constructed as they are to reflect the stories related in Ovid's celebrated poems. They are not programme-music in the Lisztian, or even the Beethovenian, sense; while there is some element of imitation in them (for example, of the croaking of the frogs created by Latona from the Lycian peasants) and some narrative element too, the music mostly depicts expressive states analogous to those provoked by the verse. The music is often deeply impressive, for example the opening movement here, a solemn, noble piece that will strike the listener above all as Gluckian; this is not the only echo of Dittersdorfs old teacher, but there is plenty of music that is quite individual in tone, inventive, witty and polished in style.

The present performances are, like Dittersdorf himself, Viennese, so may be thought to have some edge over the British ones on the rival Chan dos CDs cited above. But in fact I do not think they serve the music any better. They are technically rather more polished, perhaps, and (in the Viennese way) more homogeneously blended. Some of the slow movements—such as the first one, mentioned above, or that of No. 3 (which so resembles "Che puro ciel" from Orfeo), or the oboe solo one of No. 4, or the 'lute and voice' one (Ovid's words, represented by pizzicatos accompanying oboe and bassoon)—are appealing, with warmth and restraint. But the fast movements, and indeed some of the slow ones too, seem to me decidedly dully played, with a routine air that does little to put across the unusual character of the music. There is a marked lack of energy, for example in the Allegro of No. 1, the witty minuet and the dramatic finale of No. 3 or the Allegro of No. 6—to name just four of the many movements that sound weary and as if the players are not really interested in the music.

The Cantilena performances, although often rather slower, give an impression of an altogether stronger commitment to the music and a livelier feeling for it. There is more drama and more contrast. The Viennese recording is marginally the smoother and the more surely balanced, and it comes with a superior programme-note (even if at times uncertainly translated). If you have the old recording, then, stick to it; and it is probably the better buy if you haven't.

S.S., Gramophone Magazine 1990

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