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"Per l'orchestra di Dresda, Vol. 1: Ouverture"

Coline Dutilleul, sopranodh; Stephan MacLeod, basscg
Les Ambassadeurs - La Grande Écurie
Dir: Alexis Kossenko

rec: Nov 30 - Dec 2, 2020, Royaumont, Abbaye
Aparté - AP258 (© 2021) (82'41")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Friedrich FASCH (1688-1758): Ouverture a 2 chori in B flat (FWV K,B1) (ouverture); Johann David HEINICHEN (1683-1729): Concerto in F (S 234)a; Diana sull'Elba (S 200) (sonata); Missa No. 9 in D (S 5) (Concertinob; Cruxifixusc); Missa No. 12 in D (S 7) (Et in spiritum sanctum)d; Johann Georg PISENDEL (1687-1755): Sonata for strings and bc in c minor (JunP III.2); Johann Joachim QUANTZ (1697-1773): Concerto for two transverse flutes, strings and bc in g minor (QV 6,8)e; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Concerto for violin and orchestra in D (TWV 53,D5)f; Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1679-1745): I penitenti al sepolchro del redentore (ZWV 63) (sinfonia); Il serpente di bronza (ZWV 61) (Potrei sovra degli empi)g; Missa Dei Filii in C (ZWV 20) (Christe eleison)h

Laura Duthuillé, Nathalie Petibon, recorder, oboe; Monika Fischaleck, Stéphane Tamby, recorder, bassoon; Jérémie Papasergio, recorder, bassoon, bassono grosso; Alexis Kossenko (soloabe), Amélie Michel (soloae), Olivier Bénichou (soloa), transverse flute; Neven Lesage, Gabriel Pidoux, Vincent Blanchard, Martin Roux, oboe; David Douçot, bassoon; Jean-François Madeuf, Pierre-Yves Madeuf, Lionel Renoux, corno da caccia (soloa); Stefano Rossi (soloaf, Gilone Gaubert, Hadrien Delmotte, Virginie Descharmes, Yuki Koike, Lorena Padron, Lathika Vithanage, Julie Friez, Diana Lee, Elisabeth Desenclos, Guya Martinini, Alain Pegeot, Murielle Pfister, Yannis Roger, David Wish, violin; Fanny Pacoud, Maialen Loth, Laurent Muller, Françoise Rojat, viola; Tormod Dalen, Elena Andreyev, Gulrim Choï, Nicolas Verhoeven, cello; Michael Chanu, Damien Guffroy, double bass; Thomas Dunford, lute; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord; Emmanuel Arakélian, harpsichord, organ

The court chapel in Dresden was generally considered the best in Germany during the first half of the 18th century. Alexis Kossenko, in the liner-notes to the disc under review here, describes how it first focused on French music, as Frederick August I - as many other rulers - were under the impression of the splendour at Versailles, and wanted to imitate it as much as possible, including its music scene. Later it became under the spell of the Italian style, and one of its great promoters was Johann Georg Pisendel, first a violinist in the chapel and later its director. The third phase was the emergence of the two styles, reflecting the general preference for the 'mixed taste' in Germany.

Kossenko and his ensemble here present the first volume of a series devoted to what was played by the court chapel. There is not exactly a lack of repertoire: thanks to Pisendel, the music library comprises around 1,800 pieces. The music basically came from three sources. First: a number of composers were in the service of the court, such as Johann David Heinichen, Jan Dismas Zelenka and, of course, Pisendel, who wrote music for the chapel to play. In addition, some composers passed by and worked at the court for some time; among them were Francesco Maria Veracini and Antonio Lotti. Second: Pisendel had good and often even close contacts to colleagues in Germany and beyond, who sent their compositions to Dresden. Among them were in particular Georg Philipp Telemann, first in Frankfurt and then in Hamburg, and Johann Friedrich Fasch in Zerbst. And then there was Antonio Vivaldi, whom Pisendel had met when Frederick August II as part of his grand tour visited Venice in 1712, with Pisendel in his retinue. Pisendel considered Vivaldi as his teacher, who for his part saw Pisendel rather as his colleague. He gave him some violin sonatas, and later wrote concertos for the Dresden chapel, which have the addition per l'orchestra di Dresda (hence the title of this disc). Third: Pisendel was an avid collector of music, who was in particular interested in Italian music, and especially the works of Vivaldi. As a result, the Dresden library includes one of the largest collections of Vivaldi manuscripts in the world.

Music life in Dresden had some specific features. First: it was not only the chapel as a whole which played at an impressive technical level, but some of its members were real virtuosos on their respective instruments. Among them were Pisendel himself (violin), Louis-Gabriel Buffardin and his pupil Johann Joachim Quantz (transverse flute), François Le Riche and Johann Michael Böhm (oboe), Johann Fischer and Franz Adam Samm (horn). This allowed composers to include virtuosic parts for them in their compositions. Their presence and technical skills also explains why pieces by composers from elsewhere were often arranged, especially through the addition of wind parts. Another important feature was that the court was religiously divided. Whereas the population was in majority Protestant, Frederick August I converted to Catholicism, in order to be crowned as King of Poland. Composers who were Catholic as well, such as Zelenka, wrote music for the Catholic liturgy. Other composers, among them Heinichen, were Lutheran, but his masses could be used in both liturgies. The same goes for the mass which Johann Sebastian sent to Dresden - the piece that he at the end of his life would extend to the B minor Mass (BWV 232). Third: apart from instrumental and sacred music, opera was an important part of music life in Dresden, and it became even more prominent when in 1730 the deceased Kapellmeister Heinichen was succeeded by Johann Adolf Hasse, who already had made a name for himself as a composer of operas. Kossenko mentions that Pisendel complained that especially after 1740, the chapel had become "a mere opera orchestra".

The variety of music played at the court in Dresden is reflected in the programme recorded by Les Ambassadeurs - La Grande Écurie. Rather than entirely focusing on the instrumental music, they recorded a mixture of instrumental and vocal music. That is understandable and helps to understand the nature of music life, as in the vocal music we find some of the same features as we know them from the instrumental works. On the other hand, it is also a little unsatisfying that we only get extracts from larger vocal works. That said, all the pieces from which extracts are performed, are available complete in recordings.

In this first volume, we only get music by German composers. Johann David Heinichen was for a number of years Kapellmeister, but due to health problems, which led to his early death, it was Zelenka who often acted as his substitute. Heinichen was trained in Italian music, and composed in this style, both in his instrumental and his vocal music. His oeuvre includes operas, serenatas and a large number of secular cantatas, as well as sacred music. Notable is the instrumental movement in one of his masses, with a solo for the transverse flute. Diana sull'Elba, from which here the overture is played, is one of his serenatas, dating from 1719. The Concerto in F has two brilliant horn parts.

Jan Dismas Zelenka was a quite individual character, with a musical language of his own, which is easily recognizable in its unpredictability. He was a master of counterpoint, which brought him the admiration of Johann Sebastian Bach, but also was the reason that he was accused of being old-fashioned and out of step with his time. The pieces included here are eloquent examples of his idiom. His colleague Pisendel was the one who disciplined the chapel in such a way that it became a real top-class ensemble. He must have been an excellent composer himself, if we have to go by what has been preserved under his name. However, that is not very much. It seems possible, though, that some of the anonymous pieces in the library are from his pen (recently, the ensemble Scaramuccia recorded some sonatas which may well have written by him). He seems to have been very self-critical which may be the reason that he has written so little or that he did not want to sign some of his music.

He almost certainly was responsible for the arrangements of music by other composers. One example is the Concerto in D by Telemann, which has been preserved in two different versions. One of them is a copy by Telemann's colleague and friend Christoph Graupner in what probably is Telemann's original scoring: solo violin, three violins, two violas, cello obbligato, trumpet and basso continuo. That is an unusual scoring in itself. In the Dresden version, the trumpet is replaced by a horn - undoubtedly in favour of one of the horn players in the chapel - and the three violins are joined by three oboes, playing colla parte. Moreover, two bassoons support the horn and the cello and a third participates in the basso continuo. The violin part has also been adapted.

Johann Friedrich Fasch is represented here with an overture for two orchestras. Unfortunately, neither the track-list nor the liner-notes indicate that this is merely the first movement of an Overture or orchestral suite. The scoring for two orchestras is rather unusual, and it does not surprise that it is one of his most frequently-performed works. Johann Joachim Quantz is best known as the flute teacher of Frederick the Great of Prussia. However, he started as a player of the oboe (and the recorder) but then turned to the transverse flute under the guidance of Buffardin. The Concerto in g minor has solo parts for two flutes, and it seems likely that these were played by Quantz and Buffardin. Interestingly, a later copy from Berlin indicates that it is intended for a smaller ensemble, without any doublings.

That brings us to the issue of performance practice. The orchestra in this recording is rather large: it comprises fifteen violins, four violas, four cellos and two double basses. Kossenko writes: "The very generous size of the orchestra corresponds to the maximum size of the Hofkapelle in its heyday. A study of the orchestral material shows that the same works were often played in larger numbers in the church than in the concert hall, possibly because of the acoustics. Oboes and bassoons are played in groups of four, transverse flutes in groups of three". These decisions are open for debate. First: the fact that a chapel had a large number of instrumentalists in its ranks does not imply that they were always used. Given that they probably had to perform pretty frequently, it seems possible that the players also acted as each other's substitutes. The difference between performances in the concert hall (not specified in the liner-notes) and the church is interesting, and although there seems little reason to doubt the performance of instrumental music during the liturgy (see the above-mentioned extract from Heinichen's Missa No. 9), that in itself is not a good reason for recording this programme in an empty church. The reverberation is quite problematic here.

Kossenko has also taken some liberties which are debatable. That goes in particular for the extract from Heinichen's Missa No. 12, 'Et in spiritum sanctum'. Heinichen asks for two flutes and two recorders, playing in unison. "We have indulged ourselves somewhat here, considering the resources of the Hofkapelle, where all the oboists and bassoonists had to be able to play the recorder if necessary: with a total of eight flutes (five recorders and three transverse flutes), the timbre of the main part becomes quite supernatural...". I can see neither any necessity, nor a firm historical foundation for this decision.

The decision to play the natural horns without the technique of the hand in the bell, which is of a later date, is most welcome. The Madeuf brothers are specialists in this field, and their participation is a substantial asset of this recording. There are also good reasons to include a bassono grosso.

As one can see, there are certainly reasons to be critical about aspects of this recording. However, the playing is really excellent. The ensemble as a whole is first class, and the solo parts are brilliantly executed. The music performed here is quite exciting, and I am looking forward to the next volumes which undoubtedly will include further unknown treasures from the library of one of the greatest ensembles in music history.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Les Ambassadeurs - La Grande Écurie

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