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Antonio BERTALI (1605 - 1669): Sonatas for strings

[A] "Prothimia Suavissima parte seconda"
Ars Antiqua Austria
Dir: Gunar Letzbor

rec: August 24 - 29, 2005, Hallstatt, Pfarrkirche Mariä Himmelfahrt
Arcana - A 340 (© 2006) (68'15")

[B] "Valoroso"
Carlos Mena, altoa
Ricercar Consort
Dir: Philippe Pierlot

rec: Sept 21 - 24, 2003, Bra-sur-Lienne, Église
Mirare - MIR 9969 (© 2004) (79'20")

[A] Antonio BERTALI: Sonata I a 3 [1]; Sonata II a 4 [1]; Sonata III a 3 [1]; Sonata IV a 3 [1]; Sonata V a 3 [1]; Sonata VI a 3 [1]; Sonata VII a 3 [1]; Sonata VIII a 3 [1]; Sonata IX a 3 [1]; Sonata X a 3 [1]; Sonata XI a 3 [1]; Sonata XII a 4 [1]; [B] anon Sonatina à Viola da Gamba; Antonio BERTALI: Sonata a 2; Sonata a 3; Sonata a 3; Sonata IV a 3 [1]; Sonata a 5; Sonata a 6; Sonata a 6 'Tausend Gulden'; Leopoldus I (1640-1705), arr Antonio Bertali: Regina coelia

(Sources: [1] Prothimia Suavissima ovvero XII Sonate ... parte seconda, 1672)

[A] Gunar Letzbor, violin; Ilia Korol, violin, viola; Claire Pottinger-Schmidt, viola da gamba; Jan Krigovsky, violone; Hubert Hoffmann, archlute; Norbert Zeilberger, harpsichord, organ; [B] François Fernandez, Luis Ottavio Santos, violin; Maia Silberstein, Blai Justo, viola; Philippe Pierlot, Kaori Uemura, Rainer Zipperling, viola da gamba; Eric Mathot, contrabas; Giovanna Pessi, harp; Chris Verhelst, klavecimbel; Violaine Cochard, Francis Jacob, orgel

The Habsburg dynasty was one of the most powerful in Europe from the early 13th to the early 19th century. It also attracted the best musicians and composers to serve at its courts: their high standard was a reflection of the power and splendour of the rulers. Until the early 17th century the Kapellmeister at the court of the Austrian Habsburgs was always a representative of the so-called 'Franco-Flemish school'. But in 1619, when Ferdinand II was elected as emperor, he replaced the musicians at the court in Vienna with the personnel of his own chapel in Graz. The new Kapellmeister was Giovanni Priuli, and with him the whole chapel came under Italian influence which should last until the early 19th century. One of the musicians entering the service of the new emperor was Antonio Bertali. It seems he served at the court since 1624, but the first firm evidence of his presence dates from 1631, when he is listed as an instrumentalist in the imperial chapel.

It seems he soon gained a high reputation as he composed music for special occasions at court. This led to his appointment as Kapellmeister in 1649, when he succeeded Giovanni Valentini. In this capacity he was responsible for the composition of sacred and secular vocal works. Unfortunately many of his works have been lost: only three operas and two oratorios have been preserved.

Bertali also wrote instrumental works, scored for 3 to 18 voices. A part of his instrumental output has also been lost, but enough has been preserved to give a good impression of his skills as a composer and also as a violinist. The 12 sonatas recorded here by Ars Antiqua Austria are the second part of a collection of 24 sonatas, published as Prothimia Suavissima 3 years after his death in 1672. Their authenticity has not been completely established, though: the title page only gives the initials F.S.A.B.; according to the French composer Sébastien de Brossard, an avid collector of and expert on Italian music the composer was Antonio Bertali. But in 1671 a collection of sonatas by Samuel Capricornus was printed, whose first six sonatas are identical with sonatas from Bertali's collection. It is impossible to be absolutely sure who the real composer is. It is possible that Capricornus is the composer and published these sonatas again under Bertali's name to increase the chance of commercial success.

These sonatas are not modelled after the Italian trio sonata which consisted of mostly four clearly divided movements in a sequence of slow-fast-slow-fast. What we have here are rather ensemble sonatas which are based on the Italian canzona with its sequence of a random number of short and contrasting sections; the Sonata IV is the simplest with just three sections, the last of which is a repeat of the first. In contrast to comparable collections of sonatas of this time the title page indicates that these sonatas are conceived for string instruments. Most are for two violins, viola da gamba and bc - the bass part was not included in the number of parts, so a Sonata a 3 means a sonata for three instruments and bc -, but there are also parts for the viola and the violone. The Sonata II, for instance, is scored for two violins, viola da gamba, violone and bc, the Sonata III for violin, viola, viola da gamba, violone and bc. There is no indication as to the number of instruments to be used; here the sonatas are played with one instrument per part. The violin parts are certainly written for highly-skilled violinists, but there is no double-stopping as can be found in virtuosic string music of the time.

The contrasts between the successive sections are of a various character, either in tempo, metre, scoring (soli vs tutti) or texture (polyphony vs homophony). In addition there are harmonic singularities, for instance the dissonances between the two violin parts in the Sonata V and at the end of Sonata VIII. The Sonata II begins with an ascending chromatic motif. All of these twelve sonatas may be in only 3 or 4 parts, they are very different in character and Affekt.

While preparing this review I was searching for other recordings of Bertali's music. I was able to find three previous recordings: Musica Fiata (CPO, 1997), the Freiburger Barockorchester Consort (Carus, 2000) and the Ricercar Consort (Mirare, 2004). I decided to include the latter into this review. As only one sonata is played by both ensembles they nicely complement each other. That is even more the case as the Ricercar Consort's recording has a wider horizon and includes pieces in 5 and 6 parts, but - at the other end of the spectrum - also compositions for two instruments (violin, viola da gamba) and bc as well as a solo piece. The latter is closing this disc: a virtuosic and exciting Chiacona in which the violin plays a series of variations over an ostinato bass which is varied itself in the course of the piece. No less virtuosic is the Sonatina for viola da gamba and bc by an anonymous composer found in the Kremsier archives. It is in fact a suite which opens with a kind of toccata, followed by a series of dances with a variation: allemande - variatio, courente - variatio, sarabande - variatio 1ma & 2da and gigue 1mo & 2da. In particular the first and last movements are very demanding.

Also interesting is the inclusion of a vocal work, Regina coeli, a sacred concerto by emperor Leopold I, who was a very skilled player of various instrument and a composer of a considerable oeuvre. He has written this piece for voice and bc, and Bertali added string parts - 2 violins and 3 viole da gamba - to it. This disc includes the best-known composition by Bertali, the Sonata a 6 nicknamed Tausend Gulden, performed and recorded from the early days of the historical performance practice.

Both recordings give a fascinating picture of the art of Antonio Bertali and of the level of music practice at the imperial court in Vienna. Both ensembles play extremely well and exploit the character of the repertoire. The viola da gamba in the Ricercar Consort's recording is probably getting a bit more weight than in Ars Antiqua Austria's performance as Philippe Pierlot plays with more zest and has a little more presence than Claire Pottinger-Schmidt. But as I said these discs are complementary and can both be strongly recommended. Those with a specific interest in music from and around the court in Vienna have much to choose from as this repertoire is frequently performed. The two older recordings with music by Bertali I mentioned before are well worth exploring, and also very recommendable is the recent exciting recording of music from the collection of the bishop of Olmütz by CordArte, which also includes two sonatas by Bertali.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Ars Antiqua Austria
Ricercar Consort

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