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Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1623 - 1680): Sonatas

[I] "Sonatas"
Le Concert Brisé
Dir: William Dongois
rec: Sept 31 - Oct 3, 2016, Talange (F), Église Jésus Ouvrier
Accent - ACC 24324 (© 2017) (69'21")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Pastorella a 2; Sonata a 2 [2]; Sonata a 3 [2]; Sonata a 5 [2]; Sonata La Carioletta [2]; Sonata II (arr Le Concert Brisé) [2]; Sonata V [3]; Sonata VIII [1]; Sonata XII a 3 [1]; Sonate II [4]

William Dongois, cornett; Jean-François Madeuf, trumpet; Stefan Legée, sdackbut; Moni Fischalek, dulcian; Alice Julien-Laferrière, violin; Hadrien Jourdan, organ

[II] "The Emperor's Fiddler"
David Irving, violin; Laura Vaughan, viola da gamba, lirone; Hannah Lane, harp; Tommie Anderson, therobo; John O'Donnell, harpsichord, organ (soloa)
rec: Sept 27 - 29, 2017, Melbourne, St Fidelis Parish Church, West Coburg
Obsidian - CD718 (© 2018) (55'15")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Caspar KERLL (1627-1693): Passacaglia in d minora; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER Sonata I in C [3]; Sonata II in F [3]; Sonata III in g minor [3]; Sonata IV in D [3]; Sonata V in c minor [3]; Sonata VI in A [3]

Sources: [1] Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Duodena selectarum sonatorum, 1659 [2] ms Kromeriz, 1664; [3] Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Sonatae unarum fidium, 1664; [4] Rost Codex, [ms, 1680-88]


Johann Heinrich Schmelzer was one of the main composers of 17th-century Austria, who for most of his career was in the service of the imperial court in Vienna. He is considered one of the most brilliant representatives of the German/Bohemian/Austrian violin school, and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber may have been one of his pupils. However, New Grove mentions that the first documentary evidence of his activities suggests that his first post was that of cornettist at the Stephansdom in Vienna. This may well explain the prominent role of the cornett - and generally wind instruments - in the programme that Le Concert Brisé recorded.

Schmelzer was born in Lower Austria and moved to Vienna, but it is not known exactly when. It is also not known for sure who his teacher was; it could have been Antonio Bertali who was a member of the imperial chapel from at least 1631 and Kapellmeister from 1649 until his death in 1669. There is documentary evidence that Schmelzer entered the service of the court in 1635-36. In 1649 he was appointed a violinist in the court orchestra, in 1671 he became vice-Kapellmeister and in 1679 Kapellmeister, one year before he died of the plague. In 1665 he also succeeded Wolfgang Ebner as imperial ballet composer.

Schmelzer was held in high esteem by his peers as well as his employers. The first of the latter was Ferdinand III, who died in 1657; at this occasion Schmelzer composed his Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi III, which is his first extant work. The emperor was succeeded by Leopold I, who ennobled Schmelzer in 1673; he then added Von Ehrenruef to his name. A contemporary stated that he could play "on his most artful violin the world's wonders themselves".

Schmelzer also composed quite a lot of vocal music, but the largest part of his output in this genre has been lost: none of the 173 sacred works mentioned in the catalogue of Emperor Leopold I's private collection has been preserved. The same goes for some Italian cantatas and madrigals. What has come down to us is mostly instrumental music, and as a result he is mainly seen as a composer of music for instrumental ensemble as well as sonatas for violin and basso continuo. Three collections of instrumental works were published in his lifetime. In 1659 the twelve Duodena selectarum sonatarum for two violins, viola da gamba and basso continuo were printed in Nuremberg. There his next two collections were published as well: in 1662 thirteen sonatas for two to eight instruments and basso continuo, entitled Sacro-profanus concentus musicus and in 1664 the six Sonatae unarum fidium for violin and basso continuo, which are the subject of the second disc under review here.

The largest part of Schmelzer's output has been preserved in manuscript, among them seven of the ten pieces recorded by Le Concert Brisé. Five of them are taken from the collection of 1664 which have been part of the Kromeriz Music Archive. This includes the music brought together by Bishop Karl II von Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn (1664-1695); among the composers represented in this collection are also Biber and the trumpeter Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky. However, whereas these two worked for some time in Kromeriz, Schmelzer did not; he had no ties whatsoever to Bohemia. The liner-notes and the track-list don't specify the original scoring of these pieces. That is a shame, because in the performance trumpet, cornett and sackbut figure prominently, and one would like to know whether that is in line with Schmelzer's intentions.

That is certainly not impossible. As we have seen, Schmelzer started his career as a cornettist, and from that angle it is certainly possible that he has written music with parts for the cornett. The pieces in the Kromeriz music archive may well be compositions from the early stages of his career. The role of the trumpet is interesting: considering the prominent role of Vejvanovsky in Kromeriz, the trumpet must have been held in high regard by the bishop, and that may have inspired him to collect music with trumpet parts from elsewhere. It is bit odd that the role of the trumpet is not discussed at all in the liner-notes. In contrast, it is stated that the cornett, although it lost much of its ground towards the end of the 17th century, was still given demanding parts in some music. As there seems little difference in character between music for violin and for cornett, some violin parts may well have been played on the cornett as well. The sackbut figures more prominently in Schmelzer's output; in a number of pieces, it is mentioned as an alternative to the viola da gamba. It inspired the performers to omit the latter and play such parts on the sackbut. Some sonatas also indicate the use of a dulcian (fagotto), for instance the Sonata La Corioletta, scored for cornett, violin, dulcian, sackbut and basso continuo. Its use was very common at the time.

We have to assume that the line-up in some sonatas is the result of a decision taken by the performers. This is in general rather convincing, and - if some of those pieces have been recorded before - these performances may be interesting alternatives to what is available. In the Pastorella à 2, performed here on violin and cornett, I prefer two violins. I also find the participation of winds in the two sonatas from Duodena selectarum sonatarum questionable, as they are explicitly intended for strings. A selection of sonatas from Sacro-profano concentus musicus would have been more obvious. That does not take anything away from my appreciation of this production, which is very interesting. The playing is of the highest level, and the performances offered here are hard to surpass. This is a substantial addition to any collection of disc with instrumental music of the 17th century.

The second disc is more 'conventional', so to speak: the six sonatas which Schmelzer published in 1664 are played as they were intended - by violin and basso continuo. However, there is more to this recording than meets the eye. The collection was dedicated to Carl Carafa, papal legate who at the time of publication had just been elevated to cardinal. It is notable that the edition did not consist of separate parts, as was customary at the time, but has the form of a score. Charles Brewer, in his book The Instrumental Music of Schmeltzer, Biber, Muffat and Their Contemporaries (London, 2016), states that this "was most likely necessary since the player of the continuo had to be able to see the difficult and at times rhapsodic passagework in the violin".

These sonatas are typical specimens of the stylus phantasticus: they are not formally divided into different movements, but are rather sequences of sections contrasting in metre and tempo, which follow each other attacca. Two features need to be specifically mentioned. Four of the sonatas are entirely or partly based on a basso ostinato. Double stopping is avoided altogether; the exception is a single passage in the Sonata III. Schmelzer extends the range of the violin to the sixth position; in two sonatas the violin has to play a g'''. He also requires sudden dynamic changes, and the Sonata VI includes an abrupt shift from A major to F major.

So far, so good. But what is so special about this recording? The booklet includes much information about aspects of performance practice (bravo!) which is quite interesting, although some of it is probably only entirely comprehensible for those who play the (baroque) violin themselves. Among them are the choice of instrument (a copy of a Jacob Stainer of c.1670) and bow (modelled after iconographic evidence from c.1620) as well as the way the violin is held. Several positions are known from Schmelzer's time; apparerently there was no standard way to hold the violin. David Irving holds the violin "freely on the collarbone, without any use of the chin to except when tuning. Shifting to higher positions involves leaving the thumb behind as a support; the joint of the thumb then acts as a pivot when shifting down". The bow is also held in a particular way, which is especially suited to perform this kind of repertoire; it is known as the 'Italian' bowhold, which is different from the French. Another feature is that the violin is strung in equal tension, whereby the lowest string has the same tension as the highest, along with all intermediate strings. This, according to the liner-notes, is in line with common practice before the second half of the 18th century. In the basso continuo we find various instruments, performing in different combinations. Most notable is the use of a harp. It is stated that this instrument was present at many German courts in the 17th century, and that the 1706 inventory of the Vienna Hofkapelle includes una Harpa treplicata. Lastly, it needs to be mentioned that the instruments are tuned in quarter-comma meantone. Those who have a special interest in these aspects of performance practice should definitely study the booklet.

They - and not only they - are well advised to add this disc to their collection. Not only are these sonatas some of the best of the time, they receive fine performances here from Irving and his colleagues, even though one may prefer a more dynamically differentiated and rhetorical approach. This is a musically rewarding disc, but especially fascinating as far as performance practice is concerned. In particular those who have a special interest in music for violin should not miss this important production.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Le Concert Brisé

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