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Johann Wilhelm HERTEL (1727 - 1789): "Cello & Organ Concertos"

Bettina Messerschmidt, cello; Michael Schönheit, organ
Merseburger Hofmusik
Dir: Michael Schönheit

rec: July 2 - 5, 2019, Saalfeld (D), Gertrudiskirche
CPO - 555 203-2 (© 2021) (63'35")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Concerto for cello, strings and bc in A; Concerto for cello, strings and bc in a minor; Concerto for organ and orchestra in G; Sinfonia in D; Sinfonia in F

Johann Wilhelm Hertel doesn't appear very frequently on the concert programmes of today's baroque orchestras. And only a rather small part of his oeuvre has been recorded. It is mostly his trumpet concertos which have been given attention to. To date, period instrument ensembles haven't recorded many of Hertel's works yet. Therefore every step in the direction of an exploration of his considerable oeuvre has to be welcomed.

Hertel was born in Eisenach as the son of Johann Christian, a violinist and composer, who from 1733 was the Konzertmeister of the court orchestra. It is likely that Johann Wilhelm was taught the violin by his father. He also received keyboard lessons from a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1742 Johann Christian was appointed as Konzertmeister of the court orchestra in Neustrelitz, and his son entered the orchestra as violinist and harpsichordist. He had close contact with musicians working at Frederick the Great's court in Berlin, and took violin lessons from Franz Benda. It brought him also into contact with poets who were representatives of the Enlightenment, such as Lessing and Ramler. Hertel became an exponent of the Enlightenment as well. He started to write for a magazine in Hamburg and was very interested in educating people in musical matters. In 1754 he entered the service of the court in (Mecklenburg-)Schwerin, where he stayed until his death, although the court chapel moved to Ludwigslust in 1767. He remained at the service of the court, and concentrated on composition, organising concerts at the court and musical education.

Hertel's oeuvre comprises sacred and secular vocal music, solo concertos, symphonies, chamber music and keyboard works. His concertos, in particular those for keyboard and for violin, and his symphonies are considered his most important and most original compositions. He also wrote some treatises, one of which about playing the basso continuo.

This disc presents some examples of his output: three solo concertos and two sinfonias. These show the two main features of the musical development in Germany around the middle of the century, Sturm-und-Drang and Empfindsamkeit. The Sturm-und-Drang style is detractable in the sinfonias and the fast movements of the solo concertos. The slow movements, on the other hand, bear the traces of the Empfindsamkeit. The solo instruments have beautiful melodies to play, which develop over a mostly quiet accompaniment of the strings.

The difference between fast and slow movements is the common feature of the pieces included in the programme. In the two sinfonias, the horns play a prominent role in the fast movements, but don't participate in the slow movements. In the andante alla polacca of the Sinfonia in F, their role is taken by the transverse flutes. It lends this movement an intimate character, which is also due to the key of F minor. This work was originally written as the introduction to a cantata composed at the occasion of the birth of Mecklenburg's crown prince, Friedrich Franz, in December 1756. The date of composition of the Sinfonia in D is not known; here there is less of difference in mood between the fast and slow movements.

The oeuvre of Hertel includes fifteen keyboard concertos. As he was a keyboard player himself, he may have written them for his own performances. However, the Concerto in G included here was dedicated to his employer, Duke Friedrich, who, according to Hertel "played the clavier from his youth". The Duke owned a chamber organ, built in 1753, and therefore it seems possible that this concerto was intended to be performed by him. The liner-notes mention that this is Hertel's only organ concerto. From this we probably have to conclude that the other concertos, mentioned in the work-list in New Grove, are rather intended for harpsichord.

The two cello concertos were discovered in the early 1990s, and are comparable with those by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The Concerto in a minor is particularly expressive, whereas the Concerto in A is of a more uplifting character. The opening ritornello in the first movement of the former is rather remarkable, for instance in that the almost entire range of the strings is explored. Here the contrast between the slow movement, with its reminiscences of the Empfindsamkeit, is more marked than in any other piece on this disc.

The present disc confirms the impressions of previous recordings of instrumental and vocal works, that Hertel was a fine composer, who does not deserve to be overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries. It can serve as a good introduction to his oeuvre, supported by informative liner-notes, which also put him into his historical context, with the help of quotations from contemporary sources, among them Hertel's own biographical notes. The performances are pretty much ideal. Bettina Messerschmidt is a most communicative performer who explores the different moods in the cello concertos to the full. Both the lyrical and the more dramatic features receive the treatment they deserve. Under the nimble fingers of Michael Schönheit, the organ concerto comes to life. These three concertos are worthwhile contributions to the repertoire. The orchestra is providing excellent support and delivers colourful and energetic performances of the sinfonias.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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Bettina Messerschmidt

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