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Carl Friedrich ABEL & Johann Christian BACH: "Chamber Music"

Il Gardellino

rec: Nov 12 - 14, 2009, St. Kruis-Male, St. Thomas van Kantelberg
Accent - ACC 24221 (© 2010) (62'30")

Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787): Quartet in G (WKO 227); Quartet in B flat, op. 8,2 (WKO 62) [1]; Sonata for viola da gamba No. 22 in d minor (WKO 207); Sonata for viola da gamba No. 24 in d minor (WKO 209); Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782): Quartet No. 1 in B flat (Warb B 60) [3]; Quintet in F, op. 11,3 (Warb B 73) [2]; Sextet in C (Warb B 78)

(Sources: [1] Carl Friedrich Abel, Six Quartettos, op. 8, 1769; [2] Johann Christian Bach, Six Quintettos, op. 11, 1774; [3] Six Quatuors ... par J.C. Bach et C.F. Abel, op. 14, 1776)

Jan De Winne, transverse flute; Marcel Ponseele, oboe; François Fernandez, violin; Vittorio Ghielmi, viola da gamba; Ira Givol, cello; Shalev Ad-El, harpsichord, fortepiano

As long as the German-born Handel lived English composers had more or less to play second fiddle. It is ironic that when he died, his place was soon taken by two other masters of German origin, Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel. Their names are inextricably connected because of the so-called 'Bach-Abel concerts' they organized. It is not known for sure whether they knew each other personally before they met in London. According to Charles Burney Abel had been in Leipzig to study with Johann Sebastian Bach, but that is impossible to verify.

As a professional and virtuosic player of the viola da gamba he was a member of the court orchestra in Dresden. When the city was destroyed by Frederick the Great in 1757-58 during the Seven Year War he left the city, and in 1759 he arrived in London. Here he gave his first public concert on the viola da gamba and the harpsichord only a few days before Handel's death. Soon he started to play a major role in the music scene in London. In 1761 he was appointed Chamber Musician to her Majesty. The fact that the royal family was also of German origin may have played a role in this.

Johann Christian Bach was the only of the four composing sons of Johann Sebastian who made his way to another country. He felt attracted to Italy and in particular the Italian opera. Although he first acted as an organist and composed religious music he soon got the opportunity to compose operas. And his growing reputation in this department led to the commission of an opera for the King's Theatre in London. Although he first intended to stay here for one year, he never returned to Italy. In England he not only was active as a composer of operas but thanks to his contact to Abel he became connected to the royal court as well. He was appointed as the Queen's Music Master in which capacity he also had to accompany the king playing the transverse flute, and teach the royal children.

Bach and Abel are best-known for the 'Bach-Abel concerts' which took place from 1765 until shortly after Bach's death in 1782. During these concerts they not only performed their own compositions, but also works by their contemporaries. Some of the greatest virtuosos from the continent were performing as soloists.

It is not sure whether the music on this disc was performed during these concerts, as no programmes of these events have been preserved. Music like this was also performed at the royal court as well as in private homes of aristocratic music-lovers and the homes of the composers. It shows the various forms and scorings of the music composed and performed in those days.

The disc ends with what is one of Johann Christian Bach's best-known chamber music compositions, the Sextet in C, scored for keyboard, oboe, violin, cello and 2 horns ad libitum. This is not a kind of mini keyboard concerto, because the keyboard doesn't have a solo role. Only the two fast movements have two parts for horns, but they can be performed ad libitum as they have no independent material and just serve to add some colour to the ensemble. The set of six quintets opus 11 also belongs to Bach's better-known works, and in particular the sixth of the quartets is often played. It is nice that Il Gardellino has chosen the Quintet in F, op. 11,3, in two movements. This music is written in the galant idiom, but that doesn't prevent it from containing expression, especially in the first movement which contains some harmonic tension between the treble instruments. These are mostly playing in pairs over the basso continuo.

The disc opens with Johann Christian Bach's Quartet No. 1 in B flat from a collection of quartets by both Bach and Abel, printed in 1776. The first treble part can be played either on the transverse flute, the oboe or the violin. Here the oboe has been chosen, which creates a nice contrast with the other treble part, which is for the violin. Again this is in two movements, an allegro and a rondo grazioso. In the first movement we recognize another common feature of music of this time, the drum bass.

Carl Friedrich Abel is well represented on disc. As far as I know of the two quartets played here only the Quartet in G has been recorded before, but on a disc which may be not that easy to find. So this recording on a more mainstream label is most welcome, even though its authenticity is a bit doubtful. Originally it was printed with three movements, but it seems only the first movement is an original composition, whereas the last movement is an arrangement of another work by Abel. The second movement has no flute part, and in a modern edition it has been left out. This version in two movements is also the one performed here.

The Quartet in B flat, op. 8,2 was originally conceived as a string quartet, but the replacement of the first violin by another instrument, like the transverse flute, was quite common. It is a substantial work in three movements, beginning with a lively allegro con spirito, which is followed by an expressive adagio, and closes with a tempo di minuetto.

The viola parts in the music on this disc is performed here on the viola da gamba, another quite common practice at the time. And as Abel himself very likely participated in the performances of this repertoire it could well be in line with how he performed those pieces himself.

He also wrote a large number of solo pieces for the viola da gamba, and two of them are performed here. They stem from his own improvisations on the viola da gamba, which he was most famous for. This explains the improvisatory character of these two sonatas, which is brilliantly realised by Vittorio Ghielmi. The other compositions on this disc are equally well performed, with excellent ensemble and outstanding contributions of all participants. This disc gives a very interesting picture of the music of these two masters whose music gradually comes out of the shadow of their contemporaries Haydn and Mozart.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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