The Academy of Ancient Music has a very long history in British music, originally going back to the 18th century, but it is the current organization, founded in 1973 by period music expert and conductor Christopher Hogwood, that we hear today on so many excellent recordings, from the oratorios of Handel to the complete symphonies of Mozart, and now to an outstanding introduction into the form called the symphony. Current conductor and harpsichordist Richard Egarr leads a crack ensemble of about 20 musicians on a journey into the earliest instances of what was to gradually develop into the symphony-- probably the most popular form in music for almost 200 years.
We begin with a sinfonia (or instrumental introduction) Handel wrote to grab the attention of his audience for his oratorio "Saul." It's a short four movement piece which suggests the drama and excitement to come in the vocal music Handel wrote, and is perhaps closer to the Italian overture used to introduce many operas of the time. It gets a very fine performance by Egarr and his band, just as good as or even better than Gardiner's in his complete recording of the oratorio.
Next, we get a symphony by a composer many may never have hear of--Franz Xaver Richter--his Grand Symphony No. 7 in C. Richter is one of the composers associated with what was called the Mannheim School of music,and their distinctive orchestral techniques and methods which produced what was then the most famous orchestra in Europe, the Mannheim Orchestra, with their "Mannheim Rocket," a swiftly rising crescendo, and "Mannheim Roller," another type of crescendo with a rising melody line. These techniques were pioneered by such composers as Richter, and Johann Stamitz , whose Sinfonia No. 4 in D is next on the program. All of the Mannheim composers were interested in experimenting with orchestral techniques which would produce interesting, arresting sound effects, which later developed into the great symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The symphony of Richter and that of Stamitz are both given what is probably the best performance of either work currently available. The AAM and Egarr make the most of what is not really great, but rather, interesting music. Both works are part of a transition into the symphonies of J. C. Bach (the "London Bach") and the very young (8 years old at the time) W. A. Mozart, whose Symphony No. 1 is next.
When Mozart was 8, his father brought him to London to show him off and to allow him to study the works of J.C. Bach and Carl Abel. They introduced him to the Mannheim School and to the"gallant," elegant Rococco style which was then popular, and of which Mozart's short Symphony No.1 is a good example. It's really amazing that this work of a young child is both more interesting and effective than the previous two symphonies of Richter and Stamitz. Just listen to the haunting second, slow movement, and you'll agree. The AAM and Egarr again produce an excellent performance which really whets your appetite for more Mozart symphonies with them. (Remember the famour Hogwood set!)
Finally, we have Symphony No. 49 by the "Father of the Symphony" (or, at least its perfector)--Joseph Haydn. Haydn was a tireless experimenter, and he produced as many as if not more techniques as the Mannheimers in his 104-or so symphonies. No. 49, a work from Haydn's "Strum und drang" (Storm and strife) period, is a very dramatic minor-key work that is both restless and highly compressed, being entirely derived from a central motif which keeps coming back in every movement. Egaar and AAM give us one of the finest versions of this work ever recorded, making it as exciting and memorable as many better-known later works of Haydn and Mozart.
The sound on this entire recording is beyond praise. The AAM now record on their own label, and they've produced an interesting brief video introduction to this record which is available for viewing on Youtube. This all makes me want to hear and see this group on a DVD of a complete concert with spoken commentary by Mr. Egarr, who should also play a Mozart Piano Concerto with an improvised cadenza. This excellent disc will have to do till then.