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Johann Abraham SCHMIERER (1661?-after 1700): "Zodiaci Musici (1698) - Orchestral Suites"

Ensemble Tourbillon
Dir: Petr Wagner

rec: Nov 24 - 26, 2013, Prague, Tyrsuv dum (Baroque Assembly Hall)
Accent - ACC 24294 (© 2015) (71'57")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Suite No. 1 in F; Suite No. 2 in d minor; Suite No. 3 in D; Suite No. 4 in b minor; Suite No. 5 in B flat; Suite No. 6 in g minor

Marek Spelina, transverse flute; Petra Ambrosi, Ales Ambrosi, oboe; Tereza Samsonová, oboe (taille); Petr Budín, bassoon; Lenka Torgersen, Lubica Habart, violin; Ivo Anýz, viola; Petr Wagner, viola da gamba; Hana Fleková, viola da gamba, cello; Jan Krejca, theorbo, guitar; Premysl Vacek, guitar; Filip Dvorák, harpsichord

Once in a while a disc lands on my desk which is devoted to a composer I had never heard of. That is the case with the present disc which comprises six partitas by Johann Abraham Schmierer, apparently the only compositions from his pen which have come down to us. Schmierer is an almost completely unknown quantity: he has no entry in New Grove, but - according to the liner-notes - he is mentioned in the German encyclopedia Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. However, there is little to tell about him. We don't know when he was born and when he died (*). It is even not sure whether he was a professional composer.

He was born in Augsburg and his name first appears as that of a Diskantist in the choir of Augsburg Cathedral. This suggests that he was a pupil of the then Kapellmeister Johann Melchior Gletle. He left the choir in 1680 with a stipend of the Cathedral chapter which allowed him to study philosophy at Dillingen University. In 1682 he transferred to Salzburg University to study law. However, it seems that he aspired to a career in music as in 1683 he applied for the job of Kapellmeister in Augsburg, as the successor to Gletle who had died that year. He didn't succeed and it seems that he entered the service of the Fugger family, not as a musician but as a jurist.

In 1698 he published Zodiaci Musici, "in Twelve Balletic Parts, the First Part of the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac Presented in Music". The second part was announced in 1710, but it is unsure whether these have ever been published or even composed. The title and the description suggest a link to astrology, but in his liner-notes Bernhard Blattmann argues that there is nothing in the music itself which points in that direction. Moreover, "[if] one consults the relevant esoteric literature (...), then it becomes evident that Schmierer would not have been allowed to use any relative major/minor keys for a musical representation of the different zodiacal signs." Therefore he assumes that the title is just a commercial ploy to make the collection stand out among the many editions of instrumental music published in his time.

It was a time in which many in Germany were under the spell of French music. Aristocrats tried to copy the splendour of the French monarchy under Louis XIV and the music associated with it, in particular that of Jean-Baptiste Lully. It resulted in several composers writing music in the style of Lully; they were known as Lullistes. Among them are Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, Philipp Heinrich Erlebach and Johann Sigismund Kusser. The latter even went to Paris to study with Lully. The six partitas, as they are called on the title pages, follow the structure of the orchestral suites from Lully's operas played in France. Every suite opens with an ouverture; this is followed by a series of dances, such as allemande, bourrée, gavotte and gigue. In three of the suites the ouverture is followed by an entrée. Elsewhere it has been suggested - referring to the Overture in E flat (TWV 55,Es4) by Telemann - that this could indicate that the suite was originally written for a theatrical performance. However, ballets were usually performed at larger courts, and Blattmann points out that there is no evidence whatsoever that Schmierer was ever in the periphery of such a court.

The description on the title page indicates for which occasions this music was written: "comedies, dinner music, serenades and other such cheerful gatherings". One could compare them with the Symphonies pour les Soupers du Roy by Michel-Richard de Lalande. With how many instruments should these suites be performed? The title page mentions "four violins and harpsichord ad libitum". Blattmann refers to the preface - unfortunately not included in the booklet - in which Schmierer includes "unusually detailed instructions for instrumental doubling of the parts" which makes him conclude that "this is by no means chamber music, but genuine orchestral music that can, by way of exception, also be performed soloistically ("alla camera", as Schmierer puts it)." However, in the baroque era there is no strict separation between orchestral and chamber music. The 'orchestral' overtures by the likes of Telemann and Bach, for instance, can be performed with a (small) orchestra, but there is no fundamental objection to a performance with one instrument per part. At the time the music was written the line-up probably differed according to the situation and the venue. In this recording three of the suites are performed with one string instrument per part. In the Suite No. 3 the upper part is played by a transverse flute. The Suite No. 6 is also played as chamber music, but then with wind instruments: three oboes and bassoon. The Suite No. 5 is the only one with 'orchestral proportions': the strings are doubled by wind instruments.

The variety in the line-up and the scoring seems in accordance with what was common practice at the time. I was wondering whether the choice of the transverse flute in the Suite No. 3 was appropriate when I heard the sarabande, where the strings play pizzicato. Obviously this is a technique of string instruments which a flute can't copy. However, the score requires staccato play which is no problem for the flute. But why is this interpreted as pizzicato by the strings? This is only a minor issue, though. These six suites are very interesting and entertaining stuff. One should not expect much expression here, not even in the plainte which ends the Suite No. 2. That is not meant as a negative assessment: this music was written to entertain, and nothing more. Even so, now and then there are some dark streaks, especially in the Melodie from the Suite No. 6. Petr Wagner and his colleagues have opted for mostly pretty swift tempi. In some instances a slower tempo would probably be more suitable, for instance in the first section of the ouverture from the Suite No. 1. Overall the playing is excellent.

This disc makes one regret that not more music by Schmierer has come down to us.

(*) The International Music Score Library Project gives 1661 and 1719 as the years of his birth and death respectively.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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