Like most other music lovers, the name of Austrian composer Franz Asplmayr (1728-1786) was unfamiliar. Now, thanks to the diligence and devotion of the Gallery Players (Eybler Quartet version) of Niagara (cross-references below) his six quartets, Op. 2 (a.k.a. six quatuors concertantes—published in 1769), have come to illuminating, sonic life in this two-CD set.
Although a contemporary of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the prolific composer’s work is nowhere near his senior colleagues’ calibre. But not every pop artist produces “classics” yet still manage to have legions of fans.
In these works, cookie-cutter form (lively, Menuetto, Andante, Allegro) is employed. At the heart of them all are the “slow” movements, surrounded by “Les Petits Riens” that often rely on repeats for weight or substance.
Decidedly MIA (notably in the developments) are any serious excursions to the realm of harmonic surprise or counterpoint. Like a one-trick pony, the best Asplmayr can do on the variety front is slip into the minor mode. Nonetheless, there is a pervasive charm that will delight any listener wanting to savour honest simplicity before challenging their ears with the masters.
In “Tempo giusto” (No. 1) the music lifts off in an appropriately regal and elegant manner, only requiring—to these ears—a drier staccato to achieve the best balance. The “Menuetto” is sprite and tidy, featuring a few dollops of (rare) double stops for extra colour. Dramatic, almost operatic, the “Andante poco adagio” is ideally anchored by cellist Margaret Gay who ensures the few, welcome harmonic shifts are well led—perhaps one more degree of weight on the augmented sixths would be the icing on this thoughtful cake. “Look what I can do!” is the hallmark of “Allegro assai.” The Players produce a rollicking good time, much to the delight of all.
The opening “Vivace” of No. 2 anticipates the marvellous syncopations of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25. The balance is just right (instrumental and recording) and the wee cadenza—deftly rendered by violin I (Aisslinn Nosky and Julia Wedman divvy up the assignments)—leads to a satisfying finish. This “Menuetto” moves forward with an ideal tempo before its Trio provides some mournful contrast. Thoughtful and filled with uniform length of notes and an engaging lilt, the “Andante” also takes a note from Haydn’s playbook, offering effective use of silence—the composer’s best friend. “Allegro ma poco” redefines happiness and joy. Welcome pizzicati in the episode and a fine ring on the conclusion make this movement a highlight.
Quartet No. 3 is the least successful of the lot with the “Allegro” just shy of perfect ensemble and the “Minuetto mezza voce” wanting a tad more “relaxo”. Happily the “Andante cantabile” with its uniformity of phrasing brings everything back to the previously high standard. “Allegro moderato”—replete with savvy grace notes and violist Patrick Jordan’s always discreet but appropriate interventions—feels like the modus operandi of the Players: an amiable chat with best friends.
The highlight of No. 4 (“Andante poco adagio”) is full of on-the-sleeve passion and a welcome harmonic variance; Jordan adds much to the success of the development. There is a feeling of Asplmayr trying to flex his compositional muscles.
No. 5 features many of the styles and elements already mentioned (those with headphones may tire of hearing a few too many open or “test” strings). Still it’s hard to imagine a more exhilarating finish than the final “Allegro”!
The concluding quartet demonstrates without doubt that Asplmayr has a good understanding of the instruments at his disposal but lacks the critical notion of “what if?” in order to create something truly new. One giveaway to his workmanlike style/formatting is that the overwhelming majority of movements (24 in total here) merely end rather than come to a meaningful conclusion.
Here’s to more excursions from these Gallery Players into lesser-known composers who, nonetheless, are worthy of making an acquaintance. JWR