Published June 9, 2017

The Eybler Quartet performs Johann Baptist Vanhal's Six Quartets, Op. 6, on its new recording. (Photo courtesy of the Eybler Quartet)
The Eybler Quartet performs Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Six Quartets, Op. 6, on its new recording.
(Photo courtesy of the Eybler Quartet)


Johann Baptist Vanhal: Six Quartets/Six Quatuors, Op. 6
The Eybler Quartet
Gallery Players of Niagara GPN 170093

By Karen Cook

CD REVIEW — In recent years, our understanding of the development of the Classical Viennese style has changed dramatically, all due to one composer: Johann Baptist Vanhal. While Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven still tend to be household names, Vanhal is not. And yet, as the Eybler Quartet points out on its new recording, he was in fact quite the groundbreaker. He was the most published Viennese composer in the 1770s, the first composer to work primarily outside of the typical bonds of patronage, and, insofar as we have any solid idea of the actual number of his compositions (which remains unclear), second only to Haydn in string quartet and symphony output.

EyblerVanhalCover 400Vanhal also led a fascinating life. He was born into servitude in 1739 in Nechanice, Bohemia, and in his early 20s relocated to Vienna, where he became well enough known as a teacher and performer to earn sufficient money to purchase his freedom. He cultivated relationships among the aristocracy and various European publishing houses, and by the time he was thirty, his Op. 1 was published and he was sent on tour to Italy by a baron in Dresden. After his return from Italy, he settled in Vienna, where he lived until his death in 1813. He composed in all of the main genres of the day and published heavily for both public and church audiences. He also adopted elements of the Italian style that he encountered while on tour, moving away from dense counterpoint and toward memorable melodies, clearer, simpler harmonic motion, and the nascent sonata-allegro form.

Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813)
Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813)

The Eybler Quartet, founded in 2004 at least in part to bring attention to lesser-known composers such as Vanhal, presents on this recording his six Op. 6 quartets. Written while he was on tour, they were published in 1771 by the Parisian publishing house Huberty. Such early string quartets were often in three movements, instead of the later four; indeed, all six of these have only three movements in a typical fast-slow-fast arrangement. Unusually, all six are in a major key. Presenting them in back-to-back fashion, then, as on this disc, runs the risk of becoming stagnant, twee, or falsely cheerful.

Fortunately, Vanhal meets his match in the Eybler Quartet. Not only does Vanhal write infectious, charming, and downright interesting music, the ensemble also approaches it with an equally infectious vivacity, dynamism, and edge. This is a recording with wit, but an informed wit, one that taps into the myriad facets of emotion Vanhal writes into the quartets. The musicians play with a familiar wink and recognition of a kindred spirit, and as they themselves put it, these quartets in a way resemble a “slightly tipsy Maggie Smith sipping a mimosa” — acerbic, bubbly, spirited, and beyond reproach.

Karen Cook specializes in the music, theory, and notation of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. She is assistant professor of music at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.

Recent EMA Recording & Book Reviews

Composer Pauline Viardot Rediscovered

Pauline Viardot was a celebrated opera star in the 19th c. with a rewarding creative life, inspiring Berlioz and Brahms, playing duets with Chopin and Clara Schumann, and composing operettas and reams of mélodies for her own voice. But her youthful keyboard music has been unknown, only rediscovered by fortepianist Patricia García Gil and released in a charming new recording.
Read More Composer Pauline Viardot Rediscovered

Life on the Streets

In a revealing look into the lives of 'ordinary' folks in 17th and 18th c. Germany, author Tanya Kevorkian taps a wealth of sources that detail city life, from religious beliefs to weddings to the rhythms and rules of town watchmen. With compassion and wisdom, the author notes that historians who look at street life "have to some degree replicated the perspective of the authorities."
Read More Life on the Streets

More News & Reviews

Scroll to Top