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CD reviews

English chamber music for strings

[I] "The London Album - The trio sonata in England before 1680"
Ensemble Diderot
rec: Dec 17 - 19, 2018, Toblach/Dobbiaco (I), Euregio Cultural Center Grand Hotel (Gustav-Mahler-Hall)
Audax Records - ADX 13718 (© 2019) (66'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/JP
Cover, track-list & booklet

John BLOW (1648/49-1708): Sonata in A; Gerhard DIESSENER (c1640-1683): Sonata in g minor; Giovanni Battista DRAGHI (c1640-1708): Sonata in g minor; Johann Gottfried (Godfrey) KELLER (?-1704): Ciaccona in G; Sonata and Suite in g minor; Robert KING (c1660-1726): Sonetta after the Italion way; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Sonata in C (Z 795) [1]; Sonata in c minor (Z 798) [1]; Sonata in g minor (Z 807) [2]

Sources: Henry Purcell, [1] Sonnata's of III. Parts, 1683/R; [2] Ten Sonata's in Four Parts, 1697/R

Johannes Pramsohler, Rondán Bernabé, violin; Gulrim Choi, bass violin, cello; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord

[II] Gottfried (Godfrey) FINGER (1665 - 1730): "A Bohemian in London - Violin Sonatas by Gottfried Finger"
Duo Dorado
rec: August 16 - 19, 2016, East Woodhay (Hampshire), St Martin's Church
Chandos - CHAN 0824 (© 2019) (78'00")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata in D (RI 113); Sonata in D (RI 129); Sonata in E (RI 132); Sonata in E (RI 134); Sonata in E (RI 135); Sonata in F (RI 136); Sonata in F (RI 137); Sonata in A (RI 118); Sonata in A (RI 119); Sonata in A (RI 120); Sonata in b minor (RI 122a); Sonata in B flat (RI 124); Sonata in B flat (RI 125)

Hazel Brooks, violin; David Pollock, harpsichord, organ

Despite stylistic differences, the musical scene in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries was highly international. Performing musicians and composers travelled across the continent, looking for work or in order to expand their musical horizon. Although England was an island, it was certainly not isolated from the continent. In the decades around 1600 several English composers went to the continent, sometimes for religious reasons. From the mid-17th century onward musicians from the continent settled in England, and the influx of musical immigrants increased strongly after 1700, especially from Italy, as at that time England had come under the spell of the Italian style, represented in particular by Arcangelo Corelli.

The first disc under review here is devoted to instrumental music from the second half of the 17th century. Henry Purcell is represented with three sonatas from his two collections of trio sonatas. They are put into their historical perspective by music of foreigners, who had settled in England, and mixed continental styles with English traditions. All the music is written for string instruments. The violin was known in England: John Jenkins was one of its exponents. However, when the German Thomas Baltzar and the Italian Nicola Matteis arrived in England (in 1655 and 1670 respectively), they caused a sensation by playing the violin in an entirely different way. The music included here bears witness to their influence on violin playing in England. However, as Johannes Pramsohler observes in his liner-notes, the violin was almost exclusively played by professionals. "[The] entry of the new fashion meant above all that the music was now in the hands of professionals. One could not simply pick up a violin and scrape a few notes on it. And playing basso continuo according to the figures was an art that the English, who were used to written-out chords, had not yet mastered." This explains why the music performed by the Ensemble Diderot is technically challenging and why most of the trio sonatas were never published.

Rather than playing pieces by the best-known exponents of the new virtuosic style of violin playing, which I just mentioned, Johannes Pramsohler and his colleagues have opted for less common repertoire. Giovanni Battista Draghi is not an entirely unknown quantity, although certainly not a household name either, but very few will have heard of Gerhard Diessener, Johann Gottfried (or Godfrey) Keller or Robert King. However, even Draghi is hardly known for his music for strings.

Robert King's Sonetta after the Italion way can hardly date from before 1680, as the subtitle of this disc suggests. He was born around 1660 and in 1680 he entered the Twenty-four Violins. The Italian influence in this piece is very limited. Pramsohler refers to French influences, which manifest themselves in the dotted rhythms. This attests to the influence of the French style, which was the effect of Charles II being restored to power in 1660. He had been in exile in France, and opened the door for musicians from France to work in England, such as the Italian-born Francesco Corbetta.

Giovanni Battista Draghi was probably from Rimini and settled in England in 1662. He had been educated as a keyboard player; in 1687 he was appointed organist of James II's Catholic chapel. Draghi's Sonata in g minor seems to be his only composition for a string instrument. It is a mixture of the stylus phantasticus, which emerged in Italy in the early 17th century and later developments in the genre of the sonata.

Keller was also educated at the keyboard; little is known about his formative years, and it is also not known exactly when he settled in England, where he was active as a keyboard teacher. The booklet does not mention when the Sonata and suite in g minor were written, but it seems that it could well be somewhere in the 1690s or later. It opens with a sonata - just like Purcell's Sonnata's of III Parts - and is followed by four dances. The Ciaccona is based on a basso ostinato or ground bass, as it was called in England, and shows much similarity with comparable pieces by Purcell.

Diessener was again a keyboard player by profession. He started his career as a choirboy in Kassel, spent some time in Paris and then returned to Kassel, only to settle in England shortly before 1673. In New Grove Peter Holman states that "he was a composer of limited technique and imagination". Apparently he did not know Diessener's Sonata in g minor (not mentioned in the work-list), because it is a virtuosic piece with wide leaps and passage work ascending up to third position, which - according to Pramsohler - was exceptional for English music of that time.

It is a shame that Purcell's teacher and friend, John Blow, is almost exclusively known for his masque Venus and Adonis. His oeuvre is quite large, but in almost any department - including sacred music and keyboard music - he is overshadowed by his pupil. The Sonata in A is one of the very few pieces of instrumental music from his pen. It is a very nice piece which includes chromaticism and is also notable for the extended role of the string bass.

Purcell's trio sonatas are pretty well-known and available in several recordings. However, it is highly appropriate that three of them are included in this programme, as they demonstrate the features of the new style in England, due to the growing influence of the Italian style, and how Purcell mixes it with the tradition he had grown up with. The use of harmony is particularly noteworthy: in some movements he uses extreme chromaticism, especially in the canzona from the Sonata in C.

The Ensemble Diderot deserves much praise for this 'London Album', first of all for the way the programme has been put together. It is an ideal mix of more or less famliar pieces and unknown items, thematically connected and well suited to demonstrate the developments in English instrumental music of the late 17th century. As we come to expect from this ensemble, the playing is brilliant, colourful and dynamic. One could probably argue that the dynamic accents may be a bit too strong and that the style of playing is a bit too 'German'. However, I greatly prefer this to the bland performances I have too often encountered in recordings of English instrumental music. There is really no dull moment here. This disc is a substantial addition to the discography.

The second disc reviewed here includes violin sonatas by Gottfried (or Godfrey) Finger. Like Draghi he was a member of the Catholic Chapel of James II. The two musicians also performed together. He was also to become teacher of the viola da gamba in the planned Royal Academy, alongside Purcell, Draghi and another composer already mentioned above, Godfrey Keller.

The year of his birth is not known, but the first traces of his activities as a composer date from the early 1670s. However, we know where he was born: Olmütz (now Olmouc in the Czech Republic); at his time the Prince-Bishop Karl II of Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn maintained one of the most renowned chapels in the German-speaking world in the nearby town of Kremsier. Among the members of this chapel were such famous virtuosos like the violinist Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber and the trumpeter Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky. Their style has left its marks in Finger's oeuvre. As Hazel Brooks states in her liner-notes: "His sonatas contain a quirky mix of styles. Bohemian features from his homeland, simpler Corellian traits, and the occasional nod to the English Purcellian school are fitted together like crazy paving. This is what gives them their unique charm. Many are made up of contrasting short sections rather than separate movements, sometimes linked by short passages for basso continuo alone, both features characteristic of the Biber school."

Hazel Brooks and David Pollock have performed all of Finger's sonatas for violin and basso continuo, most of which have been preserved in manuscript. This disc offers a selection of Finger's output for this scoring. One notices many passages with double stopping, now and then he makes use of chromaticism and there are sonatas in which the violin moves to high positions. There is hardly any formal division into movements. These sonatas are products of the stylus phantasticus with its quick succession of contrasting movements.

The efforts of these two artists to bring Finger's music to our attention deserve praise. The liner-notes give much information about Finger, his historical context and the character of his oeuvre. Those who have a special interest in music for violin and those who want to extend their knowledge of English instrumental music of this particular period should definitely investigate this disc. However, I am rather disappointed about the performances.

These sonatas include many, often striking contrasts. The performers make little of them. The playing is rather straightforward, with little differentiation in dynamics. These performances and those of the Ensemble Diderot are really worlds apart. The latter's interpretations are strongly rhetorical and speechlike, but those of Duo Dorado are pretty flat and bland. I had problems keeping my concentration.

It is just a big shame that these highly interesting sonatas don't receive performances that do them full justice. I hope that some time we will see a really good recording of Finger's sonatas. They fully deserve the attention of performers and music lovers alike.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Duo Dorado
Ensemble Diderot

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