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Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723 - 1787): Sonatas for viola da gamba & Symphonies

[I] "6 Sonatas for Viola da Gamba & Bass"
Marco Casonato, viola da gamba; Massimo Marchese, theorbo
rec: August 17 - 19, 2021, Mombello Monferrato (AL), Palazzo Tornielli (Sala dei Gonzaga)
Brilliant Classics - 96565 (© 2022) (60'01")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

anon: [In diesen heil'gen Hallen]; Carl Friedrich ABEL: [Minuet] in D (WKO 193); [Minuet] in d minor (WKO 206); Sonata in C (WKO 141); Sonata in D (WKO 143); Sonata in e minor (WKO 146); Sonata in G (WKO 144); Sonata in A (WKO 142); Sonata in A (WKO 145); Vivace in D (WKO 190)

[II] "The Late Symphonies"
Dir: Martin Jopp
rec: Oct 1 - 4, 2022, Idstein, Unionskirche
Accent - ACC 24394 (© 2023) (77'29")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Sinfonia concertante in D (WKO 43)a; Symphony in C (WKO 37); Symphony in D (WKO 41); Symphony in E flat (WKO 39); Symphony in B flat (WKO 38)

Christian Prader, Lorenzo Gabriele, transverse flute; Susanne Regel (soloa), Mario Topper, oboe; Nora Hansen, bassoon; Gijs Lacuelle, Renske Wijma, horn; Martin Jopp (soloa), Jörn-Sebastian Kuhlmann, Alexandra Wiedner-Lorenz, Roswitha Dokalik, Daria Spiridonova, Adam Lord, Marie Verweyen, Kateřina Ozaki, Xin Wei, violin; Florent LaPlanche, Yuichi Yazaki, Francesca Venturi-Ferriolo, viola; Katie Stephens (soloa), Dieter Nel, cello; Christian Zincke, Eva Euwe, double bass; Henrike Seitz, harpsichord


Carl Friedrich Abel was one of the last great virtuosos on the viola da gamba, in a time in which the instrument had been largely overshadowed by the cello. After he had settled in England, he regularly performed in public concerts with colleagues, among them Johann Christian Bach, with whom he organized the so-called Bach-Abel concerts. He also performed in private surroundings, with friends and pupils, most of whom belonged among the aristocracy. One of his aristocratic pupils was Lady Elizabeth Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, who left a manuscript which includes some of Abel's pieces for viola da gamba, either solo or with basso continuo.

The Brilliant Classics disc under review here includes three such pieces, not from the 'Pembroke manuscript', but from another important source of pieces by Abel, the 'Drexel manuscript', in which we find 27 pieces he played himself. These deliver a good impression of his skills. The three pieces included here are virtuosic, full of double stops and arpeggios.

The six sonatas that are the main part of the recording are very different. They are the only pieces from Abel's pen that were printed, and that means that they were intended for the (aristocratic) amateurs of his time. No wonder, then, that these are much easier, and include few technical challenges. They are typical products of the galant style; they consist of three movements, of which the last is always a minuet, as was the case with many galant pieces.

Marco Casonato, in his liner-notes, mentions that the basso continuo can be played on several instruments, such as the harpsichord and the fortepiano. The latter instrument was gradually establishing itself at the time these pieces were published, around 1771. It would have been interesting to hear different ways of performing the basso continuo. However, Casonato opted for the theorbo, which is a typical baroque instrument, but was still played in England in Abel's time. One could argue that the combination of viola da gamba and theorbo is fitting, as both were in fact more or less 'archaic' instruments in Abel's time.

The disc ends with a curiosity. The 'Pembroke manuscript' includes a piece for viola da gamba without accompaniment which has no title, but is in fact an arrangement of the aria 'In diesen heil'gen Hallen' from Mozart's opera Die Zauberflöte. According to Casonato the unknown composer was a pupil of Abel. He mentions that Mozart, during his visit to London, copied symphonies by Abel. The addition of this anonymous piece is a nice way to end the disc and a reminder of the connection, although probably not a personal one, between the two composers.

I don't know if these sonatas have been recorded before. Today most gambists who perform Abel turn to the pieces in manuscript, as they are more technically challenging. These printed sonatas may be less demanding, but it is good music and well-written. There is no reason to neglect them, and from that angle one can only be grateful to Marco Casonato and Massimo Marchese that they have taken care of them and deliver such fine performances full of imagination and sense of rhythm. This is a disc that anyone who likes the viola da gamba will enjoy.

The second disc reminds us that there is much more to Abel than the viola da gamba. Music for his own instrument, often without accompaniment, constitutes a substantial part of his oeuvre, but he also composed music for other instruments as well as for orchestra. Among the chamber music are sonatas for different combinations of instruments, often with an obbligato keyboard part, as well as trios and quartets. For larger scorings he wrote symphonies - as has already been noted above - and solo concertos. The work-list in New Grove includes six sets of symphonies or overtures. These terms are interchangeable; the symphonies op. 1 and op. 4, for instance, were published as 'overtures' in London and as 'symphonies' on the continent. This can be explained from the fact that the symphony had its roots in the Italian opera overture. Like the latter the early symphonies have three movements, of which the last is the shortest and has the form of a dance. Abel's symphonies were indeed used as opera overtures, but he himself was in no way involved in opera. Except one aria with an obbligato part for viola da gamba he did not compose anything for the stage.

In the application of the sonata form in the opening movements Abel's symphonies are modern, but in regard to instrumentation they are rather conservative. The symphonies are scored for pairs of oboes and horns, with strings and bass. However, the winds don't play an independent part; they add colour to the strings which are the heart of the orchestra, and are used to emphasize rhythms. The influence of the Mannheim school is obvious in the use of crescendi.

"The slow movements usually have elegant, lyrical, highly ornamented melodies of considerable breadth", according to New Grove, referring to his compositions in general. It is also mentioned that Abel was famous "for his refinement of taste and his depth of feeling in adagios". In the symphonies Abel did not include adagios; all four middle movements on this disc are marked andante. That does not mean that they are devoid of expression. It is here that Abel sometimes turns to minor, whereas all the symphonies are in major. That is the case in the Symphony in E flat, whose middle movement is in C minor, and scored for strings without winds. There are minor episodes in other movements as well. In closing presto of the Symphony in C Abel includes a passage in minor for two oboes.

Bernd Heyder, in his liner-notes, links the opening allegro of the Symphony in D with Haydn. "With an energetic string unisono on a C, he abruptly lifts the second half of the opening movement into a modulation-rich development section that begins in B minor - a decade or so later, Joseph Haydn would delight London audiences with such effects in his symphonies." This work is certainly one of the highlights of this disc, also thanks to the middle movement, where the strings are coloured by two flutes, playing colla parte with the violins.

The four symphonies recorded by the Main-Barockorchester may have been played at first during the Bach-Abel concerts around 1780. From 1782 to 1785 Abel was in Germany, and it is documented that these symphonies were played in Berlin in front of Friedrich Wilhelm, who had learned to play the viola da gamba and later turned to the cello. Copies of the violin and bass parts of the London performing material are now in the Berlin State Library.

The remaining work is the Sinfonia concertante in D. This was a highly popular genre, which flourished between around 1770 and around 1830, but especially in the last two decades of the 18th century. Paris was one of the centres of the sinfonia concertante; from there the genre disseminated across Europe. Whereas in France the sinfonia concertante in two movements was preferred, elsewhere composers wrote such pieces in three movements. That is also the case with Abel's sinfonia concertante with solo parts for oboe, violin and cello. There is evidence of a performance in London in February 1785. The oboe part was played by Johann Christian Fischer, the famous German oboist who had been in the service of the Dresden court and later of Frederick the Great. The violinist was Wilhelm Cramer, one of the great virtuosos of his time, who came from Mannheim and had played at the Concert Spirituel in Paris. The cello part was played by James Cervetto, whom Charles Burney called "matchless". He was considered one of the greatest English cellists at the time. A performance by such virtuosos attests to the status of Abel as a composer of orchestral music.

This disc is an important addition to the discography, as few music by Abel other than his viola da gamba works are performed on the concert platform and are documented on disc. Some recordings of earlier symphonies are available, but given that he wrote 50 such pieces, there is still some catching up to do. This disc is musically convincing: these are five beautiful pieces which are given fine performances. Especially the middle movements come off very well. In the fast movements I sometimes wished stronger dynamic accents, but that may also be a matter of taste. Anyway, this production deserves the interest of anyone who likes music of the classical period and also contributes to our knowledge of the English music scene in the early classical period.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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