Naxos' excellent series of Franz Ignaz Beck symphonies in Artaria Editions continues apace with Franz Ignaz Beck: Symphonies Op. 3, Nos. 1-4, and at first glance one wonders if this isn't the most astounding installment of the series thus far. Presented in dedicated, crisp, and well-studied performances by the Toronto Chamber Orchestra under Kevin Mallon, these four symphonies constitute some of the most outrageous symphonic music to be found in the 18th century, slightly to the left of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Beck's symphonies were primarily printed in Paris, and by the time his Opus 3 set appeared in 1762 Beck had been living in France for awhile, where he had settled after eloping with his Neapolitan patron's daughter, or so we're told. However, there is very little in the way of concessions to French style here and there's no chance these could have doubled as opera overtures. These are straight-up, four-movement symphonies with a third-movement minuet of the kind Franz Joseph Haydn only had just begun to compose in 1762. This would ultimately prove Haydn's main bread and butter in terms of the formal design of his symphonies, although Beck's are somewhat shorter and do retain some vestiges of their Mannheim roots.
But the devil is in the details. All of the opening allegros of these works are startling; the Allegro of No. 1 in F starts off with a cheery motor rhythm only to grind down to a halt. Later on it moves through a passage of sustained chords underlain with motor rhythms that moves through a harmonic progression that makes your hair stand on end, and Mallon and the Toronto musicians make the most of this effect through careful terracing of the dynamics. Admittedly, not every movement of every symphony steps quite so far out of the box; a couple of the minuets are of the resolutely sturdy and stern kind that Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf felt was inappropriate for court performance. But that's about as conservative as this music gets, and in passages where Beck is stepping out, he's really out; there are some chords that come close to cluster combinations in the Largo of No. 2. The Presto of No. 3 contains a passage so polyharmonic at first you think maybe editor Allan Badley had his glasses perched atop his forehead when he edited it, but that's until you hear the even loopier stuff that follows, clearly indicating the first passage had to be right.
Mallon and Toronto Chamber Orchestra play every measure of this music with attention and discipline. Naxos' Franz Ignaz Beck: Symphonies Op. 3, Nos. 1-4 lays waste to the well-worn adage that beyond Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart there is nothing left in the classical period to surprise us; indeed, if this is an indication of what we don't know about the era, then this is exactly where we should be looking for surprise.