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"Travel Concertos"

Ensemble Diderot
Dir: Johannes Pramsohler

rec: March 1 - 4, 2022, Toblach, Gustav Mahler Auditorium
Audax - ADX11204 (© 2022) (76'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/JP
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 for harpsichord, transverse flute, violin, strings and bc in D (BWV 1050a) (early version); Carlo Paolo DURANT (Paul Charl DURANT) (1712-1769): Concerto for harpsichord, lute, cello, strings and bc in C Johann David HEINICHEN (1683-1729): Concerto for violin, transverse flute, oboe, theorbo, cello, strings and bc in D (S 226); Johann Jakob KRESS (1685-1728): Concerto for violin, strings and bc in F, op. 1,3; Johann Georg PISENDEL (1688-1755): Concerto for violin, strings and bc in B flat; Concerto da camera for violin, strings and bc in F

Alexis Kossenko, transverse flute; Jon Olaberria, oboe; Johannes Pramsohler (solo), Roldán Bernabé, Simone Pirri, violin; Alexandre Baldo, viola; Gulrim Choï, cello; François Leyrit, double bass; Jadran Duncumb, lute, theorbo; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord

Johannes Pramsohler and his Ensemble Diderot like to leave the trodden paths. Each of their recordings includes some first recordings, and that is no different in the case of their disc with the title 'Travel Concertos'. Three of the six works appear on disc for the first time (*). It starts with a famous work, though: the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 by Johann Sebastian Bach. However, it is not the version that is mostly recorded, often as part of a complete recording of the set of six Brandenburg Concertos. What we get here is the first version, in which the scoring is identical with the later version, but the harpsichord cadenza in the first movement is much shorter: 18 instead of 64 bars. And this brings us to the title of this disc.

The concept of the programme is rather speculative, as Pramsohler admits at the end of his liner-notes. He opens them with the suggestion that some works by baroque composers may have been intended for journeys. "The epoch of internationally touring virtuosos indeed first came into full bloom with Paganini and Liszt, and yet even a century earlier there were already opportunities for guest appearances for which soloists had to have suitable works in their baggage. And suitable was that with which one could shine to best advantage in a foreign place, and also make the task as easy as possible for the local 'accompanists' (and thus also for oneself)." Bach may have written the original version of his 5th Brandenburg Concerto for performance elsewhere. Pramsohler mentions two possibilities. In 1717 he visited Dresden, where he was to compete with Louis Marchand (which never materialized), but at his concert there he may have played this work. "One can well imagine that the relatively simple parts for flute and violin were managed without difficulty by the Dresden soloists Buffardin and Pisendel, playing at sight, for a spontaneous concert even without a rehearsal."

The other possibility may have been a visit in the spa town of Karlsbad in 1718, where his employer, Prince Leopold, regularly stayed. "Invoices show that during his second journey in 1718, the prince spent considerably more money than during the first stay a year earlier. The new Kapellmeister Johann Sebastian Bach and his musicians undoubtedly contributed to a splendid representation."

Johann Georg Pisendel is represented here with two violin concertos. Pramsohler is absolutely right in stating that Pisendel's oeuvre deserves to be better known. He was a great virtuoso, but unfortunately his extant oeuvre is rather small, probably because he was rather critical, and may not have found them good enough to keep them. His skills come clearly to the fore in the solo parts, which include double stopping and changing bariolage chords. It is notable that the scoring of these concertos is modest, and probably require no more instruments than the Ensemble Diderot uses here. That may well have been the reason to include them here, as this may suggest that they could have been played elsewhere.

Pisendel entered the Dresden orchestra in 1712. That means that he may have been part of a group of virtuosos from the orchestra which travelled to Berlin in 1715. He certainly was part of a group of eleven members of the orchestra, which also included Silvius Leopold Weiss, the oboist Johann Christian Richter and the flautist Pierre Gabriel Buffardin, which was in Vienna in August 1718 for the preparation of celebrations after the birth of the hoped-for male heir to the throne. (That hope was dashed when on 26 September a girl was born: Maria Anna). Maybe Pisendel did play the two concertos included here (or one of them) in Berlin or in Vienna. The Concerto in D by Johann David Heinichen, Kapellmeister in Dresden, may also have been performed at these occasions. The scoring of the latter concerto is rather remarkable: violin, transverse flute, oboe, theorbo and cello. The lute was sometimes used as a solo instrument in concertos, but certainly not the theorbo. The sound effects of the combination of these instruments is rather peculiar.

The same goes for the last piece in the programme: the Concerto in C by Carlo Paolo Durant, whose solo parts are scored for harpsichord, lute and cello. He is not mentioned in my edition of New Grove, and I can't remember having heard any piece from him before. He was from Pressburg (today Bratislava) and was in the service of Wilhelmine of Bayreuth, who was a lutenist herself, which explains why the lute played an important role in music life at the court. It is remarkable that although Durant is the youngest composer on the programme, he is the only one whose concerto is in four movements, as was custom in pre-Vivaldian times (Telemann also composed quite a number of concertos in four movements). It is an unusual piece anyway, not only because of the unconventional combination of solo instruments, but also because of the thematic material. This piece makes curious about other pieces from his pen.

One piece has not been mentioned: the Concerto No. 3 in F by Johann Jakob Kress. He was born near Regensburg and became a violinist in the court orchestra in Oettingen, where Jakob Christian Hertel was Kapellmeister. In 1712 he entered the court orchestra in Darmstadt, from 1723 until his death as Konzertmeister. Pramsohler recorded a disc with two violin concertos by Kress with the Darmstädter Barocksolisten, on modern instruments. This concerto is remarkable for the tuning of violin and orchestra. "The solo violin - with scordatura tuning a semitone higher - plays in the brilliant key of E Major, while the orchestra plays in F Major. The not unproblematic key (only in exceptional cases does one encounter solo concertos in E Major) strongly sets off the violin, with its silvery quality, from the accompanying instruments. It is easy to imagine that the composer sought this increased brilliance in order to bring out the solo violin from among the multitude of tutti instruments." However, it is also possible that the difference was inspired by the fact that different pitches were used across Germany. And that suggests that it may have been a 'travel concerto'.

But, as I indicated in the first paragraph, Pramsohler admits that the concept of this disc is speculative. "Granted, scepticism is appropriate when one refers to concertos that display the characteristics mentioned here as 'travel concertos.' One can without hesitation maintain that, on the basis of the size of the ensemble, they are also just as suitable for simple domestic music, for which one, as is well known, does not even have to travel." Whatever is the case, the result is a highly interesting and captivating programme of concertos, most of which are hardly known, but are of outstanding quality. That is also the label that can be used for the performances, as we have come to expect from this brilliant ensemble. Pramsohler is a top-class violinist, and here he has assembled colleagues of the same standard, whose performances of the solo parts are hard to surpass.

(*) The Concerto in B flat by Pisendel is marked as 'world premiere recording' here, but had been recorded already by Concerto Köln; that disc may not have been released when the booklet was produced.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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