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CD reviews

Late 18th-century keyboard music

[I] Johann Friedrich DOLES Jr (1746 - 1796): "6 Keyboard Sonatas"
Jenny Soonjin Kim, fortepiano
rec: Sept 24 - 25, 2016, Claremont, Cal., Claremont Graduate University (Albrecht Auditorium)
Brilliant Classics - 95454 (© 2018) (59'21")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata I; Sonata II; Sonata III; Sonata IV; Sonata V; Sonata VI

[II] Carl DITTERS VON DITTERSDORF (1739 - 1799): "Three 'Ovid' Sonatas for Fortepiano, Four Hands"
James Tibbles, Michael Tsalka, fortepiano
rec: Sept 9 -11, 2014, Auckland, University of Auckland (The Music Theatre)
Naxos - 8.573740 (© 2017) (55'58")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ajax et Ulysse; Hercule changé en Dieu; Jason, qui emporte la toison d'or

Johann Friedrich Doles is not exactly a household name. He is mentioned in dictionaries as one of the main composers of sacred music in Germany in the second half of the 18th century. Recently that part of his output has received some attention through recordings. However, the composer whose keyboard sonatas were recorded by Jenny Soonjin Kim are not from his pen, but from that of his son, who was born in 1746 and was given the same Christian names as his father. Only the rear of this disc adds "Jr." to his name.

He received his first music lessons from his father, and it is documented that he sang as a soprano in the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig in music by his father, who was Thomaskantor from 1755 until his death in 1797. However, he did not become a professional musician, but made a career as an attorney. His early death, one year before his father's, was due to health problems, which he had suffered for most of his life.

His extant oeuvre is very small: three vocal pieces which have been preserved in manuscript, and the Sei Sonate per il Clavicembalo Solo, printed in Riga in 1773. The latter are written in the galant idiom, and comprise three movements, with the exception of the Sonata V, which has four. All but one include a minuet, sometimes with a trio. The Sonata III has a pair of menuets as its middle movement. Interestingly it is followed by a pair of scherzi; in later times the scherzo usually replaced the menuet in symphonies. Robert Zappulla, in his liner-notes, states: "Four of the six opening movements are in minor keys, and all six concluding movements are in the same key as the opening movements of their respective sonatas. Central movements either are in the same key as opening movements or are in relative/parallel major/minor keys." It would have been nice, if the track-list had mentioned the keys of the various sonatas, but they are omitted.

These sonatas are probably easier to enjoy for the player than for the listener. I liked in particular the last two sonatas as well as some movements from the previous ones. However, I would characterise them as competent and well-written, but not very inspirational. It seems unlikely that I will return to this disc. There is nothing wrong with Jenny Soonjin Kim's performances, unlike her choice of instrument. I don't understand why performers are too lazy to look for the most appropriate instrument. She plays here the copy of a Walter of 1795, the kind of instrument, which most fortepiano players use in whatever repertoire they play. But these sonatas were published in 1773, and at that time the fortepiano was very different from this particular instrument. The indication clavicembalo does not necessarily indicate that a harpsichord should be used. According to Zappulla, the sonatas include many dynamic indications which the harpsichord cannot realize. An earlier fortepiano or a clavichord, probably also a tangent piano, would have been much better choices. A different instrument may have a positive effect on these sonatas.

A contemporary of Doles was Carl Ditters (1739-1799). He was born in Vienna and was a famous and much respected composer in his own time. In 1751 he entered the orchestra of Prince Joseph Friedrich von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, which was considered one of the best in Vienna. By the late 1750s he had earned a reputation as a composer of instrumental music and started to receive commissions to compose symphonies and concertos. In the 1760s he regularly played his own music, such as his violin concertos, in the Burgtheater and at the court. In 1770 he went into the service of the prince-bishop of Breslau, who resided in Johannisberg. He was rewarded with the award of the Order of the Golden Spur and later elevated to noble rank, which brought him the additional surname 'von Dittersdorf', by which he is mainly known today.

Dittersdorf's oeuvre is quite large. It includes music for the theatre, oratorios, masses and mass movements as well as other liturgical works, a large number of symphonies, solo concertos (most of them for violin, but also for other instruments, such as oboe and keyboard), chamber music and keyboard works. Today only a very small part of his oeuvre is performed, mostly the symphonies based on Ovid's Metamorphoses. These include many famous stories, which during the 17th and 18th centuries were used as subjects of cantatas and operas. Dittersdorf planned to compose 15 symphonies, divided in three sets. Unfortunately only three were printed, and three further symphonies have come down to us in manuscript. The other symphonies have been lost. However, the symphonies recorded by James Tibbles and Michael Tsalka in arrangements for keyboard à quatre mains represent three of the symphonies which have not been preserved in their original concept. It seems that they are part of a plan of arranging all the Ovid symphonies for this scoring.

Dittersdorf did not find it very easy to depict the stories in the Metamorphoses. As Allan Badley, in his liner-notes, writes, he first composed a series of individual movements for full orchestra based on episodes or images from the Metamorphoses which he had performed for his friends. In 1781 he came to the idea of transforming them to full-blooded symphonies. This created considerable problems and "in his preface he laments the impossibility of expressing in music every nuance of Ovid's poem." This was partly due to his insistence of sticking to the then common structure of a symphony in four movements. In particular the menuet gave him trouble "because the rigidity of their musical structure gave him little scope to advance the narrative." The music scholar John Rice, specialist in music of the 18th century, suggests "that Dittersdorf's ingenious solution was to invest these movements with dramatic significance rather than attempt to advance the narrative through musical action, and indeed in virtually every symphony the pivotal moment in the drama takes place during the minuet."

The booklet not only includes the liner-notes which I just referred to and quoted, but also Dittersdorf's own explanations of the way he depicts the narrative in the various movements. That is most helpful to understand these three 'Ovid' sonatas. That is not to say that it is impossible to enjoy them without that context. Dittersdorf presents himself here as a fine composer, and there is much variety within these pieces and an effective exploration of the features of the keyboard. Considering the time of composition there can be little doubt that the fortepiano is the most logical choice to interpret these sonatas. However, a copy of a Walter of 1801 seems to be a less than ideal option. The instrument played here allows for considerable dynamic contrasts, and the performers fully explore them. An earlier instrument, historically more appropriate, may well have a more limited dynamic range and therefore lend these pieces a more intimate character. After all, despite their closeness to the theatre, these arrangements were intended for domestic performance in the first place.

That said, we should be happy with this recording. It is good stuff, and although not really comparable to the sonatas by Doles reviewed above, these pieces by Dittersdorf are much more substantial and suitable for repeated listening. That is also due to the engaging and compelling performances by Tibbles and Tsalka. According to New Grove, six symphonies are available in transcriptions for keyboard à quatre mains, and the liner-notes mention that recently an arrangement of one of the symphonies which have come down to us in their original concept, has been found. It would be nice if the artists were given the chance to record the remaining sonatas. And orchestras and chamber music ensembles should really start to explore Dittersdorf's oeuvre. He is one of the unjustly neglected masters of the late 18th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Jenny Soonjin Kim
James Tibbles
Michael Tsalka

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