musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and the German-Austrian violin school

[I] "musica artificiosa"
rec: Oct 2010, Hamburg-Ochsenwerder, St. Pankratius
Ambitus - amb 96 980 (© 2015) (73'35")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Johann BAAL (1657-1701): Sonata in a minora; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Partia IV in E flat [2]; Partia VI in D [2]; Philipp Heinrich ERLEBACH (1657-1714): Sonata III in A [1]; Johann Caspar KERLL (1627-1693): Sonata in F; Rupert Ignaz MAYR (1646-1712): Sonata in Db; Sonata in d minor; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1620/23-1680): Sonata in F

Sources: [1] Philipp Heinrich Erlebach, VI Sonate à Violino e Viola da Gamba ... anche a due Violini, 1694; [2] Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa: diversi mode accordata, 1696

Volker Möller (soloa), violin; Maren Ries, violin (solob), viola; Ariane Spiegel, cello; Fritz Siebert, harpsichord, organ

[II] Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1620/23 - 1680): "Sacro-Profanus - Sonatas"
Ensemble Masques
Dir: Olivier Fortin
rec: Sept 11 - 14, 2012, Laval-en-Brie (F), Eglise Saint-Laurent
ZigZag Territoires - ZZT334 (© 2013) (53'55")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Al giorno delle Correggie, Sonata a 5 per camera; Die Fechtschule, Balletto a 4; Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi III; Polnische Sackpfeiffen; Sonata III a 6 [1]; Sonata IV a 6 [1]; Sonata V a 6 [1]; Sonata VI a 6 [1]; Sonata VII a 5 [1]; Sonata VIII a 5 [1]; Sonata IX a 5 [1]

[1] Sacro-profanus concentus musicus, 1662

Sophie Gent, violin; Tuomo Suni, violin, viola; Kathleen Kajioka, Simon Heyerick, viola; Mélissande Corriveau, viola da gamba, cello; Julien Debordes, bassoon; Benoît Vanden Bemden, violone; Olivier Fortin, harpsichord

The two discs which are the subject of this review are devoted to the German-Austrian violin school which was born in the mid-17th century and played a major role in music history for about a century. This school had its roots in Italy. On the one hand violin playing in Germany was influenced by Carlo Farina who for some years worked at the court in Dresden. The other key figure was Johann Heinrich Schmelzer who for most of his life worked at the imperial court in Vienna and probably was a pupil of Antonio Bertali, who for more than 40 years was in the service of the same court. The composers of this school of violin playing have produced a large amount of brilliant music for strings, from solo sonatas to ensemble pieces for up to six instruments. Both ends of this wide spectrum are documented here.

The German ensemble NeoBarock has put together a programme with some familiar names - Biber, Schmelzer - and some lesser known composers. The least-known of them is Johann Baal who even doesn't have an entry in New Grove. In 1677 he entered the service of the court in Bamberg as organist and composer. In 1685 he resigned and entered the Benedictine convent of Münsterschwarzach as a monk. He was a prolific composer but only one Mass, four motets and the Sonata in a minor for violin and bc have been preserved (his complete works are available on disc; Ambitus, 1990). Nothing is known about his musical education but the technical features of the sonata strongly suggest that he played the violin himself. It is very much part of the German-Austrian violin school. The first movement includes an episode in which the violin spins a brilliant web over a pedal point.

Another composer whose musical heritage has been severely damaged is Philipp Heinrich Erlebach who seems not to have been a violinist himself. More than 90 percent of his output was burnt in 1735 in a fire in the library of the Heidecksburg castle in the county of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt. Here Erlebach worked as Kapellmeister from 1681 until his death. His total output is estimated at around 1,000 pieces; about seventy were saved and among them is the set of sonatas from which here the Sonata III in A has been selected. The VI Sonate were printed in 1694. They are scored for violin, viola da gamba and bc, but Erlebach offered an alternative scoring for two violins and bc which is how it is played here. The original scoring is in line with the German tradition: many sonatas for violin and viola da gamba were composed and published, for instance by Dietrich Buxtehude in his op. 1 and op. 2. The scoring for two violins reflects the modern fashion, influenced by the dissemination of Italian trio sonatas, especially those by Corelli. The German element in this sonata is represented by the use of the scordatura technique, which means that the normal tuning of the violin is adapted to the tonality of the composition. The Sonata III includes tempo indications in Italian and dances which are in French, according to Erlebach a mistake, due to time pressure during the printing process.

Rupert Ignaz Mayr was born in Schärding, near Passau, but nothing is known about his musical education. In 1670 he entered the service of the Prince-Bishop of Freising as a violinist. From 1683 he worked at the court of Elector Max Emanuel in Munich, where he not only acted as violinist but also started to compose. In 1706 he returned to Freising to work as Kapellmeister and composed religious and instrumental music. There he also wrote a number of school operas to be performed by the students of the episcopal seminary. If we take into account that his Sonata in D for violin and bc was not published and was probably intended for his own use it can give us some ideas of his skills. Trio sonatas are mostly less virtuosic, and that also goes for his Sonata in d minor.

Johann Caspar Kerll was educated and made a career as organist, mostly at the imperial court in Vienna. In between he worked for a period as Kapellmeister at the court of the Bavarian elector in Munich. Among his teachers were Giovanni Valentini and Giacomo Carissimi. His oeuvre includes only a couple of pieces for strings, among them the Sonata in F. As it has no formal division into movements it is a specimen of an older form of sonata as it was written in Italy before Corelli.

Not much needs to be said about Biber whose music is frequently played. He was one who often made use of the scordatura technique, for instance in the collection Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa, from which two Partie have been selected. The scordatura technique is applied in the Sonata IV in E flat. The fifth movement is called Canario which is a popular rather than a court dance and that is emphasized here by the way NeoBarock plays it, in a folkloristic style. Whether that was the intention of the composer is hard to say. Musica antiqua Köln (Archiv, 2004) is much more moderate here. The Partia VI in D consists of three movements; by far the longest is a brilliant aria with thirteen variations.

Lastly we come to Schmelzer, who requires a tour de force from the performers in the Sonata in F as the two violins have to play in different scordaturas. It is in pieces like this that we meet the brilliant violinist; a contemporary called him "the most famous and almost the most distinguished violinist of all Europe". In comparison his ensemble sonatas are technically more moderate. The Canadian Ensemble Masques devoted a disc to this part of his oeuvre. Especially here we see the mixture of Italian elements with the German contrapuntal tradition. Several sonatas include fugues, some even two. Although the instruments are treated on equal footing, Schmelzer differentiates between groups of instruments within single sonatas, mostly in the form of duos and trios, or juxtaposes the lower instruments and the two violins.

In 1665 Schmelzer succeeded Wolfgang Ebner as imperial ballet composer. This explains the ballet pieces in his oeuvre, some of which may have been written for carnival celebrations. Die Fechtschule is one of his best-known pieces and another one is Polnische Sackpfeifen which also ranks among a genre which was quite popular in the German-Austrian violin school: descriptive music. That also goes for the sonata Al giorno delle Correggie (On the day of the bean-feast) in which the bassoon plays an extended role. It is fitting that the programme ends with a tribute to Schmelzer's employer for many years, the Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi III. It is a moving piece, comparable to the piece Froberger composed to mark the same emperor's death (Lamentation faite sur la mort très douloureuse de Sa Majesté Impériale, Ferdinand le troisième). It is a piece of supreme expression and a specimen of the art of counterpoint which was held in great esteem at the Viennese court.

It is not easy to compare two performances of repertoire which requires a somewhat different approach. Obviously music for an ensemble of five or six instruments cannot be played exactly the same way as pieces for one or two violins. Even so, it is clear that the two ensembles are from different traditions. NeoBarock is very much modelled after Musica antiqua Köln which - until it was disbanded in 2007 - performed and recorded this kind of repertoire so frequently. It can be described as rhetorical and gestural and among its features are a clear phrasing and articulation and strong dynamic accents. In comparison the performances of the Ensemble Masques are less pronounced, less detailed and dynamically more even. Having heard some of these pieces in performances by German ensembles I had to get used to their performances. They play very well, but I found their interpretation not always particularly interesting, sometimes even a bit dull, especially in the ballets. I prefer a more dynamical, colourful and theatrical approach.

That said, this disc presents an interesting survey of Schmelzer's instrumental music, with the exception of his output for solo violin. The disc by NeoBarock gives some idea of that part of his oeuvre, even though the sonata is for two violins. NeoBarock delivers a compelling performance of the pieces it selected; the way the programme has been put together is an interesting mixture of the familiar and the unknown. If you love this kind of music you are advised to investigate both discs.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Masques

CD Reviews