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The viola da gamba in 17th-century Germany

[I] "Komm, süsses Kreuz - The German viol in fantastic dialogues"
Frauke Hess, viola da gamba; Josh Cheatham, viola da gamba, violone; Dominik Wörner, bass; Veronika Skuplik, violin; Andreas Arend, lute, chitarrone; Torsten Johann, harpsichord, organ
rec: Oct 18 - 21, 2011, Sengwarden, St. Georgskirche
Coviello - COV 21211 (© 2012) (65'34")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) (Ja! freilich will in uns das Fleisch und Blut - Komm, süßes Kreuz, rec & aria); Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Sonata IV for violin, viola da gamba and bc in c minor, op. 2,4 (BuxWV 262) [3]; Philipp Heinrich ERLEBACH (1657-1714): Sonata III for violin, viola da gamba and bc in A [2]; August KÜHNEL (1645-c1700): Sonata III à 2 for two viole da gamba and bc in g minor [4]; Sonata IX for viola da gamba and bc in D [4]; Johann Michael KÜHNEL (c1665-after 1730): Concerto à Liuto, Viola di Gamba et Basso

[II] "The Music of Johann Schenk"
Hille Perl, Marthe Perl, viola da gamba; Johannes Gontarski, chitarrone; Lee Santana, lute, archlute, chitarrone, guitar
rec: Sept 20 - 22, 2011, Sengwarden
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88691903812 (© 2012) (75'46")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Johann SCHENCK (c1660-after 1710): Sonata II for viola da gamba and bc in a minor [7]; Sonata IV for viola da gamba and bc in A [1]; Sonata IV for 2 viole da gamba and bc in A (chaconne) [6]; Sonata XI for 2 viole da gamba in G [6]; Suite for viola da gamba and bc in F [5]; Suite for viola da gamba and bc in G [5]

Sources: [1] Johann Schenck, Tyd en konst-oeffeningen, op. 2, 1688; [2] Philipp Heinrich Erlebach, VI Sonate à Violino & Viola da Gamba col suo Basso Continuo, 1694; [3] Dieterich Buxtehude, VI Suonate, op. 2, 1696; [4] August Kühnel, Sonate ô Partite ad una ô due Viola da Gamba con il Basso Continuo, 1698; Johann Schenck, [5] Scherzi musicali, op. 6, 1698; [6] Le nymphe di Rheno, op. 8, 1702; [7] L'echo du Danube, op. 9, 1704

The viola da gamba played an important role in music history, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. In most countries it was still part of the music scene in the first half of the 18th century. Italy is the exception: here it sank into oblivion pretty quickly during the second half of the 17th century due to the emergence of the cello. Especially in Germany the viola da gamba was used in various roles: in vocal music, and in instrumental music as a solo instrument and in ensemble. The Coviello disc bears witness to these diverse roles.

Music for viola da gamba solo is presented in pieces by August Kühnel. He spent his youth in Güstrow, at that time an important musical centre in northern Germany. Here he must have become acquainted with the stylus phantasticus, a prominent featurec of the North-German organ school, which has its roots in Italy. Its influence can clearly be traced in Kühnel's compositions. He served at various courts, such as Zeitz, Dresden, Darmstadt and Kassel. In 1665 he went to Paris to study, and two stays in London, in 1682 and 1685, are documented.

How much Kühnel has composed is not known; only one collection with 14 sonatas for one or two viole da gamba and bc have come down to us. They were printed in 1698 when he was in the service of Landgrave Carl von Hessen-Kassel. Apparently he took the skills of his employer into account as the collection includes virtuosic pieces but also easier stuff. The Sonata III is for two gambas and it is imaginable that it was to be played by Kühnel and his employer. In contrast, the Sonata IX is a highly virtuosic piece for one gamba, with a series of technically demanding variations.

The viola da gamba also played an important role in ensemble music. The combination of violin, viola da gamba and bc was particularly popular. This disc offers two specimens. In 1694 Philipp Heinrich Erlebach published six sonatas for this scoring, although he suggested two violins and bc as an alternative. He composed a set of orchestral overtures in French style but the sonatas have strongly Italian leanings: the titles of most movements are in French - allemande, courante, sarabande, chaconne - but that was a mistake, as he himself stated, due to time pressure during the printing process. Dieterich Buxtehude also published two sets of sonatas for this scoring. He was one of the main representatives of the North-German organ school and he translated the stylus phantasticus of his organ works to the form of the instrumental sonata.

The Concerto à Liuto, Viola di Gamba et Basso by Johann Michael Kühnel offers a different combination of instruments. According to New Grove (where is only mentioned in the article on August) he was August's son, but in his liner-notes Thomas Jakobi suggests he was probably his nephew. Little is known about him, except that he worked mainly in Dresden and Berlin.

Lastly we hear a very famous piece: the aria 'Komm, süßes Kreuz', with its preceding recitative, from Bach's St Matthew Passion. He the viola da gamba has an obbligato part, again technically demanding as everyone knows who has heard it. This is the least satisfying part of this disc. Isolating an aria from its context is not such a good idea anyway, but here it never really comes off. The tempo is too slow (6'31") and because of that it almost falls apart. That is also due to the too emphatic performance of the vocal part; the playing of Frauke Hess is a little awkward here.

This is a little blot on what is a very fine disc. The music of Kühnel is little known, and Frauke Hess delivers a brilliant performance of his Sonata IX. The ensemble is very convincing in the ensemble pieces. Buxtehude's sonatas are quite well-known - better than Jakobi suggests in his liner-notes - but Erlebach is still a largely unknown quantity, although his sonatas have been recorded complete. All in all this disc offers a good overview of the various roles of the viola da gamba in German music of the baroque era.

Johann Schenck is generally considered a German composer, as he was born from German parents. It is mostly stated that he was born in Amsterdam in 1660, but Hille Perl writes that he may have been born four years earlier in Elberfeld. He was educated on the viola da gamba, but it is not known who his teacher was. In the first stage of his career he lived in Amsterdam where he played an important role in musical life. He composed songs on Dutch texts and delivered music for the stage. The largest part of his output is for his own instrument.

Hille Perl made a choice from the four main collections, which were printed between 1688 and 1704, all in Amsterdam. The first two show influences of English viol virtuosos but also of the North-German stylus phantasticus. The latter comes to the fore in the Sonata IV in A (1688) with its sequence of contrasting sections. In his Scherzi Musicali these elements are mixed with Italian and French features. In the Suite in F the second movement is a Tempo di Passagallo, which is followed by a gigue. The Suite in G opens with an ouverture and ends with a chacone, an exciting piece which lasts more than 10 minutes. It is highly virtuosic and explores the full range of the instrument.

In 1697 Schenck moved to Düsseldorf, where he became Kammermusikus at the court of the Elector Palatinate Johann Wilhelm. The court poet stated: "No one has ever played this instrument in a more delicate way". Here Schenck wrote the music which was published in the two collections which were printed in 1702 and 1704 respectively. Le nymphe di Rheno comprises 12 sonatas and suites for two viole da gamba without basso continuo; the two gambas are treated on strictly equal terms. They mix elements of the Italian sonata and the French suite. However, the names of the dances are mostly in Italian, and stylistically they more lean to the Italian than to the French style. Hille Perl suggests Schenck wrote them for performances by him and his employer. This could explain their relative modest technical requirements.

Two years later the fourth collection of gamba pieces was published, L'echo du Danube. It was written in Neuburg and dedicated to Baron Adam de Diamantstein, the superintendent of the Neuburg court music. Neuburg is close to the Danube which explains the title of the collection. This is virtuosic music for solo gamba, and the most Italian in style of Schenck's compositions. It is far beyond the capabilities of amateurs.

Hille Perl is one of the world's leading gambists, and as one would expect this repertoire receives outstanding performances from her and her colleagues. These are not only technically brilliant, but also temperamental. Ms Perl is clearly concerned that the music is eloquently communicated to a modern audience, or, as she herself writes, "to turn his [Schenck's] music into contemporary 21st century music". Sometimes that makes her take decisions which are questionable. That goes especially for the use of a guitar in the basso continuo in the Sonata II from Echo du Danube. The giga is certainly given an exciting performance, but the guitar is too dominant. It is also questionable from a historical point of view: the guitar seems to have played no significant role in Germany in the baroque era.

However, this is a relatively minor issue. This disc delivers a captivating survey of the art of Johann Schenck, and the performances do full justice to his brilliance.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Frauke Hess
Hille Perl

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