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Johann Melchior MOLTER (1696 - 1765): "Ouvertüre, Sinfonia und Concerti"

Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens

rec: Sept 27 - 29, 2017, Wuppertal, Immanuelskirche
Ars Produktion - ARS 38 252 (© 2020) (70'46")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in B flat (MWV VI,25)e; Concerto for cello, strings and bc in C (MWV VI,7)g; Concerto for oboe, strings and bc in g minor (MWV VI,22)c; Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in D (MWV VI,17)b; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in b minor (MWV VI,1)f; Overture in G (MWV III,3)a; Sinfonia in C (MWV VII,13)acd

Daniel Rothert, recordera; Anna Besson, transverse fluteb; Christopher Palametac, Nathalie Petibond, oboe; Javier Zafra, bassoone; Catherine Martin (solof), Frauke Heiwolt, violin; Rafael Roth, viola; Vladimir Waltham, cello (solog); Joseph Carver, double bass; Sören Leupold, theorbo; Willi Kronenberg, harpsichord, organ

Johann Melchior Molter is one of those German composers from the first half of the 18th century who have been almost completely overshadowed by their more famous contemporaries Bach and Telemann. Now and then a disc with his music is released, but a Molter renaissance is still far away. That is rather odd, given that he was highly respected among his peers, and also considering the size of his extant oeuvre, which documents his stylistic development, which was strongly inspired by two visits to Italy.

Molter's career can be divided into three phases. Being born in Tiefenort near Eisenach and being first educated by his father who was working as Kantor in his birthplace, he entered the service of Margrave Carl Wilhelm of Baden whose residence was in Karlsruhe (as it is called today) in 1717. Only two years later the Margrave sent him to Italy to further his musical education. In Venice and Rome he met the most famous masters of his time, such as Vivaldi, Albinoni, the Marcello brothers, Alessandro Scarlatti and Tartini. He returned to Karlsruhe in 1721 where he was appointed court Kapellmeister. He was expected to compose vocal and instrumental music, including music for the Margrave's opera. Unfortunately very little of Molter's vocal music has been preserved. When in 1733 the War of the Polish Succession broke out, the Margrave fled to Basle and dismissed his chapel.

Molter then took up the position of Kapellmeister at the court of Duke Wilhelm Heinrich of Saxe-Eisenach which had fallen vacant in 1734. In 1737 Molter travelled to Italy again, and it seems he visited Milan and Naples. Since his last stay the musical fashion in Italy had changed in favour of the more melodious and galant idiom of composers as Pergolesi and Leo. In 1741 Duke Wilhelm Heinrich died and Saxe-Eisenach came into the hands of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, who dismissed the Eisenach chapel. This ended the second stage of Molter's career.

In 1738 Margrave Carl Wilhelm, who had returned to Karlsruhe, died, and when his grandson assumed government he asked Molter to reorganise the chapel. From 1747 on Molter was again in Karlsruhe where he was well paid. He started with a group of 25 singers and players, but was able to extend that number considerably in the next years. This allowed him to compose music in all genres as he could rely on his players who were all virtuosos on their instruments and most of whom played more than one instrument.

Whereas most of Molter's vocal music has been lost, his extant instrumental music is sizable, comprising 170 sinfonias, around 120 chamber music works, about 70 concertos with one or two solo parts, nearly 60 pieces for instrumental ensemble, with the titles of overture, sonata or concerto, and about 50 pieces for winds. That makes it all the more surprising that so few of them are available on disc.

Although the present disc includes some pieces that have been recorded before, at least some of them are probably new to the catalogue, even though the booklet does not include any indication in that matter. The programme opens and closes with pieces for an instrumental ensemble, and in between we hear five solo concertos, which give some idea about the variety in Molter's oeuvre.

The Sinfonia in C comprises five movements and is scored for two oboes, strings and basso continuo. The three last movements bring us in the sphere of the countryside. The third is a siciliana, often associated with pastoral music. Here the oboes make way for a recorder. The fourth is called alla Sciavaglia, which seems impossible to translate. Harrison Powley, in his liner-notes, states that it "describes the commotion of common farmhands and maid servants". The piece ends with a forlane, a French dance which had its origin in the Slavic region Friulia. Here the recorder enters again.

It is notable that in the solo concertos most movements omit a tempo indication. The concertos for oboe and cello don't have any tempo indications, in the other concertos only the slow movements are specified, with adagio, largo or grave. They are all written in accordance with the Vivaldian model: the solo parts are separated by ritornellos of the strings. Most concertos performed here date from the 1720s. The Concerto in g minor for oboe includes strong contrasts between the second and third movements. The Concerto in C for cello has been preserved as an autograph, and dates from around 1730. In the second movement it is almost on its own, only supported by the basso continuo; the string ritornellos are very short. It is Molter's only cello concerto; the booklet does not tell whether he has written more, which have been lost. If not, it is another indication that the cello was not that common in Germany at the time. It is notable that it takes only a small role in Telemann's oeuvre, although he was always very keen to write music for less common instruments. It makes this concerto all the more worthwhile.

The same goes for the Concerto in B flat for bassoon, an instrument that was mainly used in the basso continuo and as part of a wind ensemble. According to New Grove, Molter's oeuvre includes four bassoon concertos, one of which is incomplete. (We have to take the work-list in New Grove with a grain of salt, though; it mentions 43 solo concertos, whereas Powley counts around 70.) This concerto probably dates from the 1730s, when Molter worked at the court in Eisenach. In the slow movement, the violin gets involved in a short dialogue with the bassoon.

Molter seems to have written more concertos for the transverse flute than for almost any other instrument, and that may well reflect its growing popularity in the course of his career. The Concerto in D dates from Molter's second period in Karlsruhe, and bears witness to the presence of the new galant idiom in his oeuvre. That comes to the fore in a stronger focus on melody and simpler harmonies. Especially the slow movement reflects the ideal of cantabile writing which is part of the galant idiom. Even so, the flute part has some virtuosic traits.

That is certainly the case with the Concerto in b minor for violin, which is his earliest surviving violin concerto. A performance is documented in July 1725. Molter may have written it for his own performance, as he was educated on the violin. The virtuosity of the solo part, which includes double stopping, may give us an idea about his own skills. This is the only concerto on this disc which comprises four movements, not after the model of the older Italian concerto, but with an additional fast movement in third place.

The disc closes with the Overture in G, which is largely written for violin, viola and violone with basso continuo. It opens with a movement in ABA form, here comprising lento and presto respectively. The ensuing menuet is in binary form, which is followed by a rondeaux, which includes a part for the recorder. Notable are the short episodes for two violins, playing in canon. A gigue concludes this piece.

Considering the relative shortage of discs with music by Molter, this recent production is an essential addition to his discography. It amply demonstrates the quality of his oeuvre, also thanks to the excellent playing by the Kölner Akademie and the soloists in the concertos, who all rank among the best on their respective instruments. I strongly recommend this disc as it offers the ideal opportunity to become acquainted with the oeuvre of an unjustly neglected master of the German Baroque.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Kölner Akademie

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