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CD reviews

"Arcadia - Paradise in Music"


rec: July 2020, Lübeck, Kolosseum
Ambitus - amb 96 842 (© 2021) (64'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/RU
Cover & track-list

anon: Contrapunct sopra La Baßigaylos d'Altr.; Pastoralea; Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER: Pastorella; Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Arpeggio - Pastorale - Canzonaa; Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Sonata in C (K 513)a; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1623-1680): La bella Pastora; Pastorella; Signor C: Pastorale del Signor C.a; Giuseppe TARTINI (1692-1770): Pastorale in A, op. 1,13 (Brainard A16)

Maren Ries, Volker Möller, violin; Ariane Spiegel, cello; Stanislav Gres, harpsichord (soloa)

In the course of history much music of a pastoral character has been written. Such music can be either sacred or secular, vocal or instrumental. The present disc includes only instrumental music, but even that can be sacred or secular. In the latter case, pastoral music is connected to the imaginary world of Arcadia, which was the ideal of the higher echelons of society from the Renaissance to the 18th century. This was inspired by the pastoral novel Arcadia, written by Jacopo Sannazaro and published around 1500. He, on his turn, found his inspiration in the bucolic poetry of Virgil. Arcadia was inhabited by shepherds, who sing songs "not about the tending of their flocks, butabout their own state of mind - usually about unhappy love", as Maren Ries, leader of NeoBarock, writes in her liner-notes.

Pastoral music can also be sacred, as shepherds play a substantial role in the New Testament's narrative of Jesus's birth. It is especially music for Advent and Christmas, that include pastoral elements, either implicitly - in the way of references to hymns or songs or the use of rhythms associated with that time of the year - or explicitly. Most pieces performed here have the word pastoral in their title. They are either sacred or secular, but it needs to be added that in pre-romantic times there was no real watershed between the two. It is not always possible to determine whether a pastoral is sacred or secular.

The disc opens with a piece that has not the word pastoral in its title, and is definitely sacred. The title Contrapunct sopra La Baßigaylos d'Altr. is rather mysterious. Translated it means "Contrapunctus on the passacaglia of another". The identity of the composer and 'the other' are not known. Maren Ries suggests that the composer may be Nicolaus Adam Strungk, who had personal contact with Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. She believes the piece might be a homage to the Austrian violin virtuoso, as she notices similarities with the opening passacaglia from the fourth sonata of the Sonatae unarum fidium of 1664. The title does not reveal that this is in fact a chorale fantasia on the hymn Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. The hymn tune appears for the first time after a long introductory passacaglia. Later on the hymn tune is quoted fragmentarily. It is a brilliant piece that is challenging for the violinist and takes over 17 minutes.

Schmelzer is represented with two pieces. The Pastorella for two violins and basso continuo is part of a large collection of violin music preserved at the Vienna Minors Convent. It is probably Schmelzer's own instrumental version of his Christmas cantata Venite ocyus de nativitate Do[mi]ni, according to Maren Ries (New Grove does not mention any Christmas cantata from his pen). It opens and closes with the imitation of church bells. The other piece by Schmelzer is definitely secular. La bella pastora - 'the beautiful shepherdess' - clearly refers to the world of Arcadia, in which male and female characters appear, and is based on a melancholic song. It is a trio sonata consisting of ten variations, and is taken from the Partiturbuch Ludwig, an important source of instrumental music from 17th-century Germany and Austria.

The disc ends with the Pastorella for violin and basso continuo by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. It is part of a large collection of violin music preserved at the Vienna Minors Convent. This is not what we probably expect from a piece of pastoral music: a quiet tempo in siciliano rhythm. Although it includes some moments which refer to a lullaby, it is mostly a musical illustration of a nativity play, such as the angels entering accompanied by fanfare-like figures, a drone illustrating the rural environment, dance rhythms depicting the joy of the shepherds and so on. Such musical illustrations were quite popular at the time, and composers like Biber and Schmelzer loved to write this kind of stuff.

With Tartini we are in the world of Arcadia again. Tartini's Pastorale is a rather curious piece for two reasons. First, it was an addition to his set of twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo, which was published as his Op. 1 in 1734 in Amsterdam. Sets of twelve (or six) works were the norm, and one may wonder why Tartini added this piece. Second, it makes use of the technique of scordatura, which was popular in Austria and Germany in the 17th century, but was out of fashion in Tartini's time. The piece includes imitations of the bagpipe, associated with the world of shepherds.

The pieces for one and two violins are separated by keyboard works. The anonymous Pastorale is based on a basso ostinato, whereas the Pastorale del Signor C includes some striking dissonances. Alessandro Scarlatti is not known for his keyboard works, but they constitute a substantial part of his oeuvre. Most of it may have been written for pedagogical purposes, but that does not take anything away from its musical quality. That also goes for the sequence performed here, with a Pastorale in the centre. Domenico Scarlatti's Sonata in C is in three sections; the first is called pastorale, with the time indication moderato.

The ensemble NeoBarock always comes up with interesting programmes and recordings. This is another one: the subject matter is interesting and has been worked out in a varied and compelling way. It includes quite some pieces that are hardly known or not known at all. The opening piece is a real treasure; ensembles looking for less common repertoire for the time of Advent and Christmas may include it in their programmes. NeoBarock is a very German ensemble, playing in the style of the former ensemble Musica antiqua Köln, which in my book is a strong recommendation. The technical brilliance, the intensity of expression, the rhetorical approach and strong dynamic accents are all things that speak in its favour.

This disc may be devoted to pastoral music, it can be enjoyed all year.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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