The sinfonia concertante was all the rage in the late 18th century, above all in Paris and Mannheim, whose crack orchestras inspired composers to turn out multiple concertos by the bushel. Mozart, en route for Paris, met Ignaz Holzbauer in Mannheim in 1777 and in a letter to his father pronounced his music ‘very fine’ – no mean compliment from someone who rarely went overboard about fellow composers. Holzbauer’s Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola and cello, which Mozart could have heard, is mellifluous, concise and deftly crafted for the solo trio. Yet while enjoyable up to a point, it lacks any melodic or harmonic features to make you sit up. Memorable tunes are also at a premium in the amply scaled, lavishly scored Concertante by Haydn’s pupil Ignaz Pleyel, whose success in the 1792 London season spurred Haydn to write his own Sinfonia concertante. Trading on ear-tickling colouristic effects, this is urbanely agreeable music, with a plaintive, siciliano-style Adagio and a mildly entertaining variation finale that gives each soloist a star turn. The opening movement is replete with Haydnesque plunges to remote keys. Unlike Haydn’s, though, Pleyel’s music can chatter and trickle rather aimlessly, too often relying on the sequential repetition of stereotyped patterns.
We’ll probably never know how much genuine Mozart there is in the problematic wind Sinfonia concertante, K297b, which has survived only in a highly dubious 19th-century arrangement. The harmonic rhythm of the suave opening Allegro is uncharacteristically leisurely for Mozart, and the theme-and-variation finale can easily outstay its welcome. Yet it’s still the most engaging of the three works here, all the more so in the reconstruction by scholar-pianist Robert Levin which restores the scoring of Mozart’s lost original (flute, oboe, bassoon, horn), distributes the material ingeniously between the instruments (with a nod to the piano-and-wind Quintet, K452) and rewrites the tuttis in more convincingly Mozartian style.
While I slightly missed the tangier, more rustic period sonorities of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in the Mozart (Harmonia Mundi, 6/06), the euphonious Basel soloists blend and dovetail sensitively in all three works, and reveal plenty of individual personality. The Holzbauer is enlivened by a discreetly inventive fortepiano continuo; and among the excellent assorted soloists in the Pleyel, Julia Schröder deserves an accolade for her high-wire acts in the finale. Horn and bassoon spin eloquent cantabile lines in the Mozart Adagio and palpably relish their cavorting and pirouetting in the finale, launched at a refreshingly bouncy tempo. I also enjoyed the spontaneous-sounding touches of ornamentation, and oboist Matthias Arter’s cadenzas, with their witty Mozartian cross-references. All the while the Basel Chamber Orchestra, recorded in a glowing church acoustic, play with their customary polish and élan.