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"The Berlin Album"

Ensemble Diderot

rec: Dec 6 - 10, 2019, Toblach, Euregio Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel (Gustav-Mahler-Hall)
Audax Records - ADX 13726 (© 2020) (69'19")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

ANNA AMALIA, Princess of Prussia (1723-1787): Fugue for two violins and bc in Da; Georg Anton BENDA (1722-1795): Sonata for two violins and bc in Ea; Johann Gottlieb GRAUN (1703-1771): Sonata for two violins and bc in G 'Melancholicus & Sanguineus' (Graun WV A,XV,11)a; Sonata for two violins and bc in A (Graun WV Av,XV,41)b; Johann Gottlieb JANITSCH (1708-1763): Sonata for two violins and bc in Gb; Johann Philipp KIRNBERGER (1721-1783): Sonata for two violins and bc in d minora; Johann Abraham Peter SCHULZ (17477-1800): Sonata for two violins and bc in a minorb

Johannes Pramsohler, Roldán Bernabé, violin; Gulrim Choď, cello; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichorda, fortepianob

Berlin may be one of the main cities of modern Germany, but in music history it has played a rather modest role until the mid-18th century. Most music lovers may even fail to mention just one composer of the 16th and 17th centuries, who worked there. The most knowledgeable may come up with the names of Johann Crüger (1598-1662) and Johann Georg Ebeling (1637-1676), but both are badly represented on disc and their music is seldom performed. It was Frederick the Great of Prussia who was responsible for making Berlin one of the musical metropoles of the German-speaking world in the mid-18th century. This was the result of his accession to the throne in 1740. He moved his court from Rheinsberg to Berlin, and took his chapel with him. In the next years he added some of the best musicians to his chapel. Their compositions receive quite some interest these days, but the disc under review here shows that there is still much to discover: all pieces in the programme, except one, are first recordings.

Recordings and live performances often focus on Frederick's court and the private concerts taking place there. In them, Frederick often played a key role, as he was a fanatical lover and player of the transverse flute. He preferred to play the sonatas and concertos written by his flute teacher, Johann Joachim Quanz, and also played pieces of his own pen. However, music life was more versatile than those private concerts. Other members of the royal family, such as his sister Anna Amalia and his mother, had their own courts, and Berlin also saw private concerts, such as the Freitagsakademien, founded by Johann Gottlieb Janitsch.

In this recording, the Ensemble Diderot focuses on the genre of the trio sonata. This was by far the most popular genre of instrumental music during the late baroque period (c1690-1750). Trio sonatas were mainly intended for amateurs, and many composers started their career with the publication of a set of mostly twelve trio sonatas for two violins and basso continuo as a way to present themselves to the music world. The trio sonatas performed here are quite different. In many cases, they include quite some technical challenges, which made them rather unsuitable for amateurs. The last work in the programme, Janitsch's Sonata in G, is a good example, as there the two violins move into the seventh position. Another striking example is the Sonata in A, attributed to Johann Gottlieb Graun (the addition of a "v" to the number in the Graun catalogue indicates that it is not entirely clear which of the two Graun brothers is the composer, as Carl Heinrich and Johann Gottlieb mostly signed their compositions with merely 'Graun'). This sonata requires a different tuning for the first violin, known as scordatura (which was popular at the end of the 17th century among composers in Bohemia and Austria). Here the G and D strings have to be tuned a tone higher.

Another kind of challenge is presented in the Sonata in d minor by Johann Philipp Kirnberger. "[The] Trio Sonata in D Minor recorded here is (...) so riddled with syncopations that their mastery, especially in the first rehearsals, requires unbelievable concentration", Johannes Pramsohler writes in his liner-notes. This is the result of Kirnberger's trying this out on his pupils. Whether Princess Anna Amalia was at the receiving end of this 'joke' is questionable. She was one of his pupils, and her Fugue in D may have been written as part of her music lessons. It cannot come as a surprise that she composed a fugue, as Kirnberger had studied with Johann Sebastian Bach and considered him the supreme composer. One of Kirnberger's main pupils was Johann Abraham Peter Schulz, who is represented here with the Sonata in a minor.

This is one of the pieces where the performers decided to use a fortepiano for the realisation of the basso continuo. It is mentioned in the liner-notes that Frederick the Great had purchased several fortepianos built by Gottfried Silbermann. Philippe Grisvard plays a copy of such an instrument not only in Schulz's sonata, but also in Graun's Sonata in A and in the Sonata in G by Janitsch. In Schulz's sonata, "it allows the string players to take the composer's prescribed pianissimi to the extreme, and lets an entirely new - perhaps 'typical Berlin' - world of sound come into being."

The most notable absentee in this programme is Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who for many years was in Frederick's service as harpsichordist. The King did not appreciate his harpsichordist very much, nor his compositions, most of which may have been played in private concerts in Berlin. In one way he turns up here: the second sonata by Graun, in G, has the nickname Melancholicus & Sanguineus. CPE Bach also composed a sonata with references to these two imaginary characters, representing two contrasting moods (but in the reverse order). "The Graun sonata (...) can be seen as the precursor and idea that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach then intensified in his version, in the end fully exhausting the concept of a conversation between two contrasting characters."

The very fact that this disc includes nearly only first recordings bears witness to its importance. The performers have approached music life in Frederick's Berlin from a somewhat different angle than is common these days. The most obvious omission as far as the line-up is concerned, is the transverse flute, the most popular instrument among amateurs. "For Ensemble Diderot, the reduction to the basics (violin, cello, harpsichord) always results from the desire to present the trio sonata in its 'classical' manifestation and the essence of the music in the form that was viewed as a kind of 'standard scoring'", Pramsohler explains in his liner-notes. They deserve applause for that as this leads to a highly original programme of pieces which are unknown and in a scoring one probably does not expect in music written in Berlin at the time. As one may expect on the basis of previous discs of this ensemble, the playing is of the highest order, and of an intensity seldom heard.

This is definitely one of the most exciting discs of baroque chamber music I have heard lately. Don't miss it.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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