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"The Trio Sonata in 17th-Century Germany"

London Baroque
rec: Jan 2005, East Woodhay (Hampshire), St Martin's Church
BIS - CD-1545 (© 2008) (73'06")

Dietrich BECKER (1623-1697): Sonata XXVI in A [2]; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Partita VI in D [5]; Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Sonata in G (BuxWV 271); Carolus HACQUART (1640-1701): Sonata VI in d minor [4]; Nicolaus A KEMPIS (1600-1676): Symphonia No 2 'Dolorosa'; Johann Caspar KERLL (1627-1693): Sonata in F; Johann ROSENMÜLLER (1619-1684): Sonata II in e minor [3]; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (1623-1680): Lanterly (Sonata a 3); Johann VIERDANCK (1605-1646): Suite in A [1]; Matthias WECKMANN (1619-1674): Sonata in G

(Sources: [1] Vierdanck, Erster Theil newer Pavanen, 1637; [2] Becker, Sonaten und Suiten, 1674; [3] Rosenmüller, Sonate, 1682; [4] Hacquart, Harmonia Parnassia, 1686; [5] Biber, Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa, 1696)

Ingrid Seifert, Richard Gwilt, violin; Charles Medlam, viola da gamba; Terence Charlston, harpsichord, organ

The title of this disc should be taken with a grain of salt. As the tracklist shows London Baroque has included pieces by composers who are Austrian rather than German. And even when 'German' is interpreted as 'German-speaking' this doesn't explain the inclusion of two pieces by composers from the Southern Netherlands. To say, as Charles Medlam in the booklet, that the idiom of their music is such that they fit into this programme seems a bit far-fetched.

In his programme notes Charles Medlam refers to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) as an event which had a very damaging effect on the state of the arts in Germany. The most famous German composer of the 17th century, Heinrich Schütz, described its effect this way: "Among the other free arts the noble art of music has not only suffered great decline in our beloved fatherland as a result of the ever-present dangers of war; in many places it has been wholly destroyed, lying amid the ruins and chaos for all to behold". The war had taken away most of the financial resources which otherwise would have been spent to art, and musicians had died as a direct or indirect effect of the war. But although much financial effort was required to restore the economy after the Peace of Westfalia in 1648 it is remarkable how quickly the arts rose up "by God's grace to their former dignity and value", as Schütz put it. He and many other composers started to write music again, from sacred music in large scoring to chamber music for small ensembles. It is the latter kind of music which is presented here.

Most music dates from the second half of the 17th century, reflecting the resurrection of music from the ruins of the war. But the programme begins with a suite by Vierdanck, which is the earliest music on this disc. The booklet doesn't give the source, but I assume it comes from Vierdanck's first publication, Erster Theil newer Pavanen, which dates from 1637. In this collection the dances are grouped in suites according to key. Vierdanck was one of the first German composers to follow the Italian model of the trio texture as this suite shows. Stylistically it is still very much like the dance music of the late renaissance, and Vierdanck was also influenced by the English consort music, which was brought to Northern Germany by, in particular, William Brade. (The ensemble Parnassi musici has devoted a whole disc to Vierdanck on CPO.)

The rest of the programme shows an increasing influence of the Italian style in Germany. That is not surprising: a number of Italian musicians had travelled north to look for employment, like Bertali, Turini, Farina and Buonamente. Some German composers went to Italy to get acquainted with the newest fashion in music, like Kerll. But even when a composer never set a foot in Italy, like Matthias Weckman, it was no problem to learn the Italian style, through the presence of Italian musicians as well as through the many manuscripts and prints which circulated through the continent.

In the pieces by Dietrich Becker and Matthias Weckmann, both working in and around Hamburg, we find the influence of the stylus phantasticus, which is so characteristic of North-German organ music, and which in itself is influenced by the Italian style. They, like Dietrich Buxtehude, were able to merge the Italian style with the traditional German preference for counterpoint.

The probably most 'Italianate' composer in the programme is Johann Rosenmüller, who worked in Leipzig, but escaped to Italy when he was imprisoned for a sexual offence. Here he fully embraced the theatrical style of the Italians, as his Sonata II in e minor shows. This sonata, from a collection of 12 sonatas which was printed in 1682, is passionate and expressive, but at the same time pays tribute to the German tradition. The 'gravity' which Heinrich Schütz considered a typical feature of German music, is certainly present in this sonata. The second movement, largo, which is repeated at the end, is in my opinion one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. It is a fugue, whose subject you just won't forget once you have heard it.

The composers from the south of Germany and from Austria were often surrounded by Italian musicians, and that had a strong influence on their own compositions, like in those of Johann Heinrich Schmelzer who never went to Italy himself. Johann Caspar Kerll, on the other hand, went to Rome to study with Carissimi. Here he also became acquainted with the keyboard music of Girolamo Frescobaldi.

The German-speaking regions in Europe were considered a centre of violin virtuosity. When the German composer Nicolaus Adam Strungk travelled to Rome he met Arcangelo Corelli. When the Italian asked him if he played the violin he replied that he did so reasonably well. When he played Corelli was astonished: "Sir, if I am called Arcangelo, you should be called Arcidiavolo". He was just one of the representatives of the 'German' violin school. Biber - who worked in Olmütz (today in the Czech Republic) and Salzburg - is another one, many of whose works reflect his own astonishing virtuosity. In his collection Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa (1696) he included seven partitas in different tunings for the two upper parts. The Partita VI is the only one without scordatura.

The odd ones out in this programme are the pieces by two composers from the Southern Netherlands. Nicolaus à Kempis was from Brussels and acted as organist there. He published a series of collections with Symphoniae, rather unpretentious pieces aimed at domestic use. This doesn't hold him back, though, from writing a piece with the subtitle 'Dolorosa' whose main features are chromatically falling lines. Hacquart was a gambist by education, born in Brughes, but moving to Amsterdam in the early 1670s. The sonata played here comes from a collection of 10 sonatas in three or four parts. In particular Hacquart's sonata hasn't that much in common with the German music on this disc. It is more Italian in style than the pieces by most German composers, being more melodious and lacking the German 'gravity'.

Most music played here requires technical virtuosity but also a good feeling for the characteristics of German music. Over the years I have heard too many recordings which don't really explore the depth and the strongly rhetorical character of this repertoire. But London Baroque has much experience in it, in particular its first violinist, Ingrid Seifert. I think some people won't immediately appreciate the somewhat sharp and penetrating sound of the violins, especially Ingrid Seifert's, and I would advise to turn down the volume a little, particularly when you listen though a headphone.

But the interpretation in many ways offers what this repertoire asks for. There is a good sense of the gravity in this music, but its brighter side comes through equally well. Sometimes I find the articulation not sharp enough, and I had liked to hear stronger dynamic differences, for instance between good and bad notes. The largo from Rosenmüller's sonata, which I already have referred to, is a good example. I have to admit that ever since I have heard Musica antiqua Köln in this repertoire - unfortunately disbanded a couple of years ago - I find it difficult to appreciate any other recording. That ensemble's performances of this kind of repertoire were close to ideal, and apparently they are difficult to match.

But, despite these small reservations I like to recommend this disc as it is one of the best available with German chamber music of the 17th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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