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CD reviews

"Anno 1698"

Focus Baroque

rec: May 13 - 15, 2008, Keila (Estonia), [New-Apostolic Church]
Ars Produktion - ARS 38 490 (© 2010) (60'02")

Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Sonata in D (BuxWV 268)ab; Godfrey FINGER (1660-1730): Sonata in Aab; Konrad HÖFFLER (c1647-c1705): Sonata V in d minorab [3]; August KÜHNEL (1645-c1700): Suite XIII in a minorab [4]; Georg MUFFAT (c1653-1704): Toccata VII in Cb [2]; Johannes SCHENCK (1660-c1712): Sonata X in Cab [1]

(Sources: [1] Johannes Schenck, Tyd en Konst-Oeffeningen, 1688; [2] Georg Muffat, Apparatus musico-organisticus, 1690; [3] Conrad Höffler, Primitiae Chelicae, 1695; [4] August Kühnel, Sonate o Partite ad una o due Viole da Gamba con il Basso Continuo, 1698)

Holger Faust-Peters, viola da gambaa; Irén Lill, harpsichordb

The fate of the viola da gamba was very different in Europe in the second half of the 17th century. In France it was the most important string instrument, and the playing of and composing for the viola da gamba reached a high level of virtuosity. Italy, France's main rival in regard to the amount of influence on music in Europe, the viola da gamba never reached a comparative status. In Germany the status of the viola da gamba was comparable to that in France. This disc presents music written or published in Germany between 1687 and 1698.

The German music for viola da gamba is generally more influenced by the French style than the Italian. At the same time there were some notable differences. First of all, the 7-string viola da gamba used in France never conquered Germany. All music on this disc was written for the 6-string viola da gamba. On the other hand, the German composers much more explored the highest register of the gamba than their French models. Secondly, the German composers made much more use of polyphony and included double stopping and chords into their compositions.

The music on this disc shows the variety of forms and styles in German music for the viola da gamba. The programme opens with the Sonata III in A by Godfrey Finger. Godfrey is the Christian name by which he is best known, but originally his name was Gottfried. He was born in Olomouc in Moravia, but otherwise little is known about the earliest stages of his career. From 1686 to about 1706 he lived and worked in England, before returning to Germany. The Sonata III is from a manuscript which is now preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is one of six sonatas, of which only the gamba parts have been preserved. The parts of the basso continuo have disappeared, and therefore this part has been reconstructed for this recording. Chordal writing is especially predominant in the third movement. The performance isn't quite satisfying because it is not speechlike enough and its articulation is too indifferentiated.

The suites by August Kühnel and Konrad Höfler most strongly show the influence of French gamba music. Kühnel worked at several courts in Germany as gambist. He travelled to England and France to become acquainted with their respective musical styles, and was influenced by the Italian style through his acquaintance with Agostino Steffani. The Sonate XIII in a minor is called 'suite' in the tracklist, which is probably because - despite its title - it has the structure of a suite. It starts with a 'preluda', which is followed by allemanda, corrente, sarabande and giga. The frequent chordal writing explains why Kühnel states in his foreword to the collection this sonata comes from that the basso continuo part can be left out. The rhythm of the allemande is well exposed, but the next couple of movements are not very dance-like as they playing is a bit stiff and wooden.

Konrad Höffler was from Nuremberg. Here he was receiving lessons on the viola da gamba from the famous gambist Gabriel Schütz. For the largest part of his life he worked at the courts of Halle and Weißenfels as gambist and composer. The Suite V in d minor is one of 12 written in the various keys. He was admired as a virtuoso on his instrument who amazed his audiences with his playing across the frets. He used higher notes than Kühnel, and also includes chords in his suites. In this suite that is particularly the case in the prélude and the sarabande. Holger Faust-Peters realises the highest notes very well, and the rhythm is equally well exposed. This suite is coming off best in this recording.

In comparison the performance the Sonata X in C by Johann Schenck is less impressive. Schenck was born from German parents in Amsterdam, and he was one of the greatest virtuosos of his time. His compositions reflect the stylus phantasticus, which had its origin in Italy but had particularly been developed into a genuine German style in Northern Germany. It is characterised by a sequence of short contrasting passages. It corresponds to the description of this style by the German theorist Johann Mattheson (Der vollkommene Capellmeister, 1739): "One is restricted in this style of writing to the rules of harmony, to no others". There is much chordal writing in this sonata, but it also contains English influences as the ciaccone is a series of divisions over an ostinato bass. Schenck also goes to the upper part of the gamba's range now and then, but here the high notes don't sound very nice and the playing generally lacks fluency and suppleness.

Also reflecting the stylus phantasticus is the Sonata in D by Buxtehude. He was one of the main representatives of this style and played an important role in integrating this style in the German tradition. This sonata is the only piece Buxtehude has written for the viola da gamba as a solo instrument. But he wrote a number of trio sonatas in which the viola da gamba plays a solo role. It reflects the high standard of gamba playing in Lübeck where Buxtehude was working, although it doesn't contain the amount of virtuosity as most other pieces on this disc. It is again beautifully performed by Holger Faust-Peters and Irén Lill.

In between the latter plays one of Georg Muffat's toccatas for keyboard, a bit odd choice in this programme of gamba music. Its inclusion is also unluckly as the performance isn't really good. It is a bit too slow and lacks fluency and drive, just like some of the gamba pieces.

To sum it up, the programme is interesting and well put together. The playing is sometimes very good, but unfortunately not consistently. And therefore I can only commend this disc with some reservation.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Holger Faust-Peters

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