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German trio sonatas & quartets

[I] Wilhelm Friedemann BACH & Johann Gottlieb GOLDBERG: "Trio Sonatas"
Ensemble Diderot
rec: Jan 12 - 15, 2022, Toblach, Euregio Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel (Gustav-Mahler-Hall)
Audax - ADX1203 (© 2023) (60'21")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/JP
Cover, track-list & booklet

Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710-1784): Sonata in B flat (F 50 / WFB B 16) (1st version); Johann Gottlieb GOLDBERG (1727-1756): Sonata in C (DürG 13); Sonata in g minor (DürG 12); Sonata in a minor (DürG 11); Sonata in B flat (DürG 10)

Johannes Pramsohler, Roldán Bernabé, violin; Gulrim Choï, cello; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord

[II] "Sonate a quattro"
Ensemble Diderot
rec: Dec 1 - 3, 2021, Toblach, Euregio Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel (Gustav-Mahler-Hall)
Audax - ADX11201 (© 2023) (55'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/JP
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Friedrich FASCH (1688-1758): Sonata in d minor (FWV N,d3); Johann Gottlieb GOLDBERG (1727-1756): Sonata in c minor (DürG 14); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Sonata in G (after Sonata in G, op. 5,4 (HWV 399); Johann Gottlieb JANITSCH (1708-1762): Quatuor in D; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Sonata in a minor (TWV 43,a5)

Johannes Pramsohler, Roldán Bernabé, violin; Alexandre Baldo, viola; Gulrim Choï, cello; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord

The Ensemble Diderot likes to leave the trodden paths and explore little-known repertoire. The two discs to be reviewed here are exceptions: only one of the pieces on the respective programmes appears on disc for the first time. That does not mean that all the other works are familiar; that goes in particular for some items on the disc with quartets.

With the first disc we are on familiar ground. First, the trio sonata was one of the most popular genres of instrumental music from the last decades of the 17th century until the mid-18th century. At that time it developed into the classical trio for keyboard, violin and cello. The trio sonata was mostly intended for the growing number of amateurs. This explains that they were technically not too challenging: the composers generally avoided typical violin techniques such as double stopping. Originally conceived for two violins and basso continuo, with time composers often offered alternatives, such as flutes or a combination of violin and a wind instrument. This made them attractive to a wider number of players, especially as in the course of the 18th century the flute became one of the favourite instruments of amateurs. The trio sonata was also a way to show a composer's skills in the field of counterpoint. It is not by chance that quite a number of composers started their activities with publishing a set of trio sonatas.

The composers in the programme are also familiar. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was the eldest son of Johann Sebastian, who paid much attention to his musical education, for instance by writing six trio sonatas for organ. Wilhelm Friedemann also was the teacher of Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who has given his name to the Goldberg variations. He is said to have played them for his patron, Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, the Russian embassador to Dresden from 1733 to 1745. Although there is no firm evidence of this, it seems quite likely, as by all accounts he was a real keyboard virtuoso from a young age. His own compositions confirm his musical talents; unfortunately his oeuvre is small due to his early death, at the age of only 29.

Goldberg's instrumental works may well confirm that Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was his teacher, as he seems to move between the various stylistic fashions of his time, just like Bach's eldest son. The Sonata in C is very reminiscent of the old Bach, and it is understandable that it was included in the Schmieder catalogue, even though several manuscripts bear the name of Goldberg as its composer. The second movement is a fugue, and its opening theme - CHBA - could be, as Johannes Pramsohler suggests in his liner-notes, an anagram of the name Bach.

According to the track-list the second sonata in the programme is also in C major. That is an error, as it is in fact the Sonata in a minor. It is a perfect example of a work that pays tribute to the different fashions of the time. The opening movement is written in the galant idiom, whereas the second movement is a three-part fugue. The last movement is a specimen of the Sturm und Drang and includes some notable harmonic progressions.

The Sonata in g minor is in three movements in the order that was fashionable in Berlin in the mid-18th century: adagio, allegro, tempo di menuetto. Pramsohler states that it is the most modern of Goldberg's four trio sonatas. The opening movement includes sighing figures, but also chromaticism, which Goldberg seems to have liked a lot. The minuet has more weight than was common at the time that this dance was especially popular among representatives of the galant idiom.

The Sonata in B flat is especially notable for Goldberg's treatment of harmony. That is particularly the case in the ciacona which closes the work. Evgeny Sviridov and Davit Melkonyan, in their liner-notes to the recording of Goldberg's trio sonatas by Ludus Instrumentalis (Ricercar, 2021), state that it is harmonically very unsettling, "to the point that the listener can lose his sense of key". Pramsohler writes: "Constructed in clear symmetrical form, the nineteen eight-bar phases allow three sections to be recognized in the center of which Goldberg set an upper voice canon at the unison above the ostinato bass."

It makes sense that he and his colleagues decided to add a trio sonata by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Although some of his chamber music is rather well-known and is available in several recordings, it would be an exaggeration to say that it is part of the standard repertoire. Like Goldberg's Sonata in g minor, Bach's Sonata in B flat is in three movements in the 'Berlin order'. It opens with a largo, followed by an allegro ma non troppo and a vivace. The latter two movements include some dramatic traits. It has been preserved in two versions: here we get the first; a later version is for transverse flute and violin.

Whereas many composers wrote trio sonatas, only a few turned to the form of the quartet. This genre was considered the ultimate proof of a composer's mastery of counterpoint. In his treatise Versuch einer Anleitung, die Flöte traversiere zu spielen, Johann Joachim Quantz described the quartet as a sonata with three concertante instruments and a bass line that is "at the same time the touchstone of an authentic contrapuntist and also a real pitfall for a musician lacking experience and compositional skills". In contrast to trio sonatas, quartets were generally intended for professionals (and probably also very skilled amateurs). This explains that they were mostly not published. The liner-notes to the Ensemble la Française's recording of quartets by Louis-Gabriel Guillemain, mention that between 1730 and 1756 only six collections of quartets were printed.

According to Quantz the quartets of Georg Philipp Telemann could be used "as excellent models for this type of music". He was one of the most prolific composers of quartets, alongside Johann Friedrich Fasch and Johann Gottlieb Janitsch. All three are represented on the programme that the Ensemble Diderot recorded.

The best-known of them is Telemann; especially his 'Parisian' quartets are frequently played and recorded. However, the Sonata in a minor included here, is different from those. Whereas in the latter one of the treble parts is scored for transverse flute, as one may expect in pieces that are written in the galant idiom, this quartet is for strings and one won't find any galant traces here. It obviously dates from much earlier in Telemann's career, when he wrote quite a number of pieces in a style dominated by counterpoint. It has been preserved in sources from Darmstadt - members of its chapel often copied music by Telemann - and Dresden, where Johann Georg Pisendel, a personal friend of Telemann, often performed the latter's music. It needs to be said, that in Telemann's oeuvre the titles of sonata, concerto and quatuor are used arbitrarily.

The programme opens with the only quartet from Goldberg's pen. It is arguably the most 'old-fashioned' piece in his oeuvre, and stylistically it is close to the Telemann quartet just mentioned. Both fast movements have the form of a fugue.

As I mentioned, Fasch was another prolific composer of quartets. He is certainly not an unknown quantity, but to date only a small part of his oeuvre has been explored. There is still much work to do, and one would hope that the Ensemble Diderot would delve into his oeuvre. It is nice that his Sonata in d minor is included here. It is written according to the sonata da chiesa model; its four movements are entitled largo and allegro respectively. This quartet is one of those in which the viola is more than an instrument which fills in the harmony.

In the Quatuor in D by Janitsch, recorded here for the first time, the viola is treated on equal footing with the two violins. The viola seems to play a substantial role in his oeuvre anyway. At least one of his quartets includes two viola parts. Janitsch's contemporary Johann Wilhelm Hertel stated that he "was a fine contrapuntalist, and his quartets are still paragons of their kind." This Quatuor in D is a fine specimen of his art. It is part of a set of five quartets that have been preserved in the Danish Royal Library in Copenhagen. Johannes Pramsohler states that it is the "most forward-looking work" in the programme. "In three movements according to Berlin manner (slow–fast–fast), with sensitive-gallant packaged counterpoint, it definitely points, with playing in the upper positions and surprising harmonic turns of phrase, in the direction of the string quartet."

The remaining work is by George Frideric Handel, in whose oeuvre the quartet does play a very minor role. "During our research, we now and then ran into works that were obviously originally trio sonatas and transformed into quartets through the addition of a viola. However, these were mostly clumsy attempts that ultimately did not find their way into our program", Pramsohler writes. The Handel's Sonata in G, op. 5,4 is the only piece on this disc, where this procedure has been applied: originally it was a trio sonata, whose five movements are derived from vocal works, such as Athalia and Terpsichore. Here a viola part has been added "with the goal of filling out the harmonies and consolidating the sound."

As I wrote at the start of this review, only one piece on these two discs is a first recording. That does not mean that they are not valuable additions to the discography. As far as the first disc is concerned, only recently Ludus Instrumentalis recorded Goldberg's complete chamber music. However, the Sonata in g minor was performed in a version for obbligato keyboard and violin, whereas here the original scoring has been realized. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach's chamber music definitely deserves to be better-known. There is no lack of recordings of baroque quartets (or quatuors), but so far only those by Telemann have become part of the standard repertoire, and his quartet included on the second disc is not one of them. Janitsch's oeuvre is receiving quite some interest lately, and rightly so; the inclusion of his Quatuor in D is a further step in the rediscovery of his oeuvre. Likewise, Fasch also needs to be given more attention. Apart from that, it was a good idea to devote an entire disc to this part of the instrumental repertoire of the baroque era.

Apart from these considerations, each recording of the Ensemble Diderot deserves to be welcomed, at it is one of the most brilliant ensembles in the field of baroque chamber music of our time. I have reviewed most of its recordings, and never have I been disappointed about the quality of its playing. (The vocal parts were less convincing, I have to say.) These two discs deserve a place in each collection of lovers of baroque music. They are the kind of recordings one returns to, and which one would use as the standard of how this repertoire needs to be performed.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

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