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"Cello Concertos from Northern Germany"

Gulrim Choď, cello
Ensemble Diderot
Dir: Johannes Pramsohler

rec: June 1 - 4, 2021, Toblach, Euregio Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel (Gustav-Mahler-Hall)
Audax - ADX 11200 (© 2022) (64'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/JP/KR
Cover, track-list & booklet
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Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787): Concerto in B flat (WK 52); Markus Heinrich GRAUEL (c1720-1799): Concerto in A; Johann Wilhelm HERTEL (1727-1789): Concerto in a minor; Ignác František MÁRA (1709-1783): Concerto in C

Johannes Pramsohler, Roldán Bernabé, violin; Alexandre Baldo, viola; François Leyrit, double bass; Jadran Duncumb, lute, theorbo; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord

The cello as we know it today, appeared at the music scene during the last quarter of the 17th century. It soon resulted in a large repertoire of sonatas and solo concertos. The most prolific composers of concertos for cello were Antonio Vivaldi and Giovanni Benedetto Platti.

The cello was considered a typical representative of the Italian style. Given the general distaste for Italian music, it is not surprising that the cello met with resistance in France, where defenders of the traditional French style aimed at protecting the viola da gamba - something like a symbol of everything that was French in music - against the 'attacks' of the cello. In comparison, the musical climate in Germany was much more open to Italian influences. Telemann expressed his reservations towards certain elements of the Italian style, but even so wrote concertos which follow the examples of Italian composers, among them Vivaldi. However, it is notable that he never wrote a solo concerto for the cello. It is only given a solo role in some concertos for three or four instruments. The same goes for Christoph Graupner. In the oeuvre of Johann Friedrich Fasch, one won't find any concerto for the cello.

Johann Sebastian Bach seems the exception: he embraced the cello, which comes most impressively to the fore in his six suites for cello solo. However, they seem to take an exceptional place in his oeuvre: he never composed any sonatas for cello and basso continuo nor gave it a solo part in his concertos. It also does not appear as an obbligato instrument in his main vocal works.

One may ask why German composers seem to have been reluctant to write for the cello. Chamber music was usually written for amateurs, and as the cello was a relatively new instrument, it seems unlikely that there were many amateurs who played it. Solo concertos were rather intended for professional players, for instance members of aristocratic chapels. Whether a composer wrote a concerto for a particular instrument often may have depended on whether he knew a player to perform it. It is likely that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote his three cello concertos for Ignác František Mára, who was from Bohemia and entered the service of Frederick the Great in 1742. In his Historisch-bigraphisches Lexikon der Tonkünstler (1790-92), Ernst Ludwig Gerber wrote about Mára that "in his youth he was an excellent soloist on his instrument, and his tone and execution were extremely expressive". He was one of the highest-paid members of the Berlin orchestra. He also acted as a composer, but according to Wikipedia only a concerto for viola can be attributed to him with certainty. Gulrim Choď, in her liner-notes, does not mention any doubt about the Concerto in C she recorded as part of a programme of cello concertos by composers connected to the court in Berlin. It is in three movements; the first and last strongly contrast with the theatrical middle movement.

Whereas the cello concertos by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach are part of the standard repertoire of cellists, the two concertos by his contemporary Johann Wilhelm Hertel are not. They are in a minor and A major respectively, and have been recorded before, by Bettina Messerschmidt with the Merseburger Hofmusik. Hertel was strongly influenced by Emanuel Bach, and the Concerto in a minor, the most expressive of the two concertos, reflects the main styles of the time. The fast movements, and in particular the opening allegro con spirito, are very unpredictable - one of the hallmarks of what is known as Sturm und Drang. The middle movement rather shows the traces of the Empfindsamkeit.

Many pieces of his time were written in the galant idiom. That is also the case with the Concerto in A by Markus Heinrich Grauel, another unknown quantity, who, like Mara, is not included in my edition of New Grove. He was related to Hertel, as his wife was Hertel's sister. For a number of years he worked at the court of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, alongside his father-in-law, Johann Christian Hertel. He entered Frederick's service as a cellist in 1763. Comments by contemporaries attest to the appreciation of his playing. For some time in the 18th century cellists held the bow as gambists, with the so-called underhand grip. Grauel was one of them. Gulrim Choď writes that "[some] passages of the A-Major Concerto could in fact point to this manner of playing (...)", but does not specify this (that may be too technical for liner-notes written for the general reader). Of the four concertos included here, this is the most 'baroque' work.

Carl Friedrich Abel is the best-known composer in the programme. However, he is almost exclusively known as a viola da gamba virtuoso and a composer of sonatas and other pieces for his own instrument. It is far lesser known that he also played the cello. His Concerto in B flat dates from his time in Berlin; in 1759 he moved to London, and about twenty years later he composed another cello concerto. The Concerto in B flat attests to his skills on the cello, as here he explores its high register; in that respect he reminds me of Luigi Boccherini, who did the same (but went some steps further). In this respect it is the most 'modern' piece in the programme. Its quality is in no way inferior to the other concertos or to his own compositions for the viola da gamba.

As I stated, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's concertos for cello are part of the standard repertoire of today's cellists. If they want to play more music from the 18th century, they turn to Haydn. One could probably say that they are a bit lazy. Fortunately, we have players like Gulrim Choď, who are willing to do some research and dig out pieces that are worth being performed and are interesting and valuable additions to the repertoire. I hope she continues her search for more concertos for her instrument. This recording attests to the importance of such research. I have greatly enjoyed this disc, because of the music, but also the engaging manner in which Ms Choď performs. She has an impressive technique, which makes technically challenging stuff sound easy. She fully explores the contrasts within the concertos, and her cadenzas are musically interesting. The Ensemble Diderot plays with one instrument per part, and that results in a perfect balance between the cello and the tutti.

Since its foundation, the Ensemble Diderot has produced an impressive series of discs, which mostly break new ground, as is the case here. The musical qualities of the ensemble and of each of its members guarantees that each disc has been a winner, and the disc reviewed here is no exception.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Gulrim Choď
Ensemble Diderot


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