Joseph Wölfl is known -- after a fashion -- as the pianist who played Ludwig van Beethoven to a draw in a famous cutting contest in Vienna in 1795. To far fewer listeners, Wölfl is a composer of negligible merit who died just a little too young and left behind compositions too slight in substance to enter the pantheon of classical music's greats, or even near-greats; this is pretty much the verdict of his Grove's biography, as well. From Russia comes a disc that puts this easy summation to a rigorous test; Caro Mitis' Joseph Wölfl: The Symphonies, as performed by the Pratum Integrum Orchestra. This band is the most accomplished original instruments ensemble in Russia, and it seems to get better with each disc it releases; the Caro Mitis discs are super audio CDs and pack a good deal of punch from an audiophile perspective.
Judging just from his cred, Wölfl can't be all bad, one would think; he studied with both Leopold Mozart and Michael Haydn and had some lessons with Wolfgang Mozart, as well, and despite their reputed enmity, was a fast friend with Beethoven. Listeners who have had contact with Wölfl may have done so through his piano concertos or string quartets, and aren't even aware that he wrote symphonies; three to be exact, and unfortunately the third exists in a piano reduction only; his Grove's worklist doesn't even mention its existence. Here, Wölfl's first two symphonies are combined with a chamber piece, the Grand Duet in D minor, Op. 31, for cello and piano, included as "bonus tracks"; the notes do not confide in us who among Pratum Integrum's two celli serves as soloist in this work, although one may assume that the group's fortepianist Anna Karpenko supplies the accompaniment. The first two movements of this Grand Duet, a Largo-Allegro pair (listed separately, but actually contained on the same track, so the CD has 12 tracks rather than 13) is written at a level that rivals the finest accompanied solo cello music from the early romantic period; blindfolded, one would swear that it is Beethoven. The Andante that follows is a tad lightweight, but the concluding Finale is a strongly rhythmic, dance-styled movement reminiscent of Boccherini, a composer in whose company Wölfl's name is never broached.
While the Grand Duo is certainly pleasing, the symphonies are mind-blowing. The First Symphony in G minor, dedicated to Cherubini, takes the typical Haydn-esque classical symphony -- specifically the extended ones written for Johann Peter Salomon, (numbered 93-104) -- and turns that format right on its head. The first movement is an especially stormy and eccentric Largo-Allegro pair that threatens to blow the roof off; even within the context of Sturm und Dräng, this is a wild ride. That is followed by a minuet -- a minuet, as the second movement mind you -- and it is as wild in its way as the first movement, and the third movement Andante con moto is a study in extreme dynamic contrasts. Move over "Surprise Symphony!" The Presto finale is more conventional than the rest, but by this time one's jaw is already unhooked from one's face. The C major Symphony takes much the same tack with a "typical," late-Mozart symphony, and has a second movement Andante that is absolute lunacy; inspired lunacy, certainly, but still lunacy.
The sound is great, and the slightly loose intonation and playing of Pratum Integrum only add to the effect of this music. The group has made its statement of purpose to include as many world-premiere recordings as it can, and this Caro Mitis release, Joseph Wölfl: The Symphonies is Pratum Integrum's best disc yet and effectively prosecutes the matter that Wölfl is a composer who deserves a second chance in terms of his reputation and merit.