musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Styrian Harpsichord Concertos"

Michael Hell, harpsichord
Neue Hofkapelle Graz

rec: Sept 20 - 23, 2018, Graz, Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst
CPO - 555 269-2 (© 2019) (78'30")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Concerto for keyboard, 2 violins and bass in C; CASTELI (?-?): Concerto for violin, keyboard, strings and bass in Ga; Johann Adam SCHEIBL (1710-1773): Concerto for keyboard, 2 violins, 2 trumpets and bass in C; Johann Michael STEINBACHER (?-after 1750): Concerto for keyboard, strings and bass in a minor; Pastorella for keyboard in G; Prelude for keyboard in a minor; Georg Christoph WAGENSEIL (1715-1777): Concerto for keyboard, 2 violins and bas in F; Concerto for keyboard, 2 violins and bass in g minor

David Schmidt, Thomas Tockner, trumpet; Ludia Froihofer (soloa), Zohar Alon, Eva Lenger, Elisabeth Kröpff, Manako Ito, Johanna Kargl, violin; Gabriele Toscani, viola; Peter Trefflinger, cello; Georg Kroneis, violone

One of the features of historical performance practice since its emergence in the mid-20th century is the attention given to repertoire beyond what has become mainstream. It is true that today many of the established orchestras and ensembles focus on the latter, but there are still performers who like to break fresh ground and investigate repertoire that has been largely forgotten. After all, there are still quite some white spots on the musical map of the 17th and 18th centuries. That probably goes in particular for the period after the era we use to call Baroque. It is not that long ago that the music written between the baroque and classical periods was not taken that seriously. Much has changed, and today music from that era - generally that of the sons of Bach - is performed and recorded regularly. Even so, there is still much to discover, and the disc under review here is a perfect example.

The disc's title refers to Styria (Steiermark), one of the states of Austria, whose capital is Graz. The music is taken from a collection which has been found in the Slovenian town of Ptuj in 1941. It was only in 1953 that the collection was analysed and catalogued. The castle, where it was found, once belonged to the Styrian noble family Attems. Several of its members from the 18th century were ardent music lovers and some of them may have played instruments, such as the keyboard, for instance Marianne, the wife of Count Joseph Bernhard, who owned a large harpsichord.

In Styria, and more generally in Austria, music for keyboard and strings was highly popular. Pieces of this kind were played in domestic surroundings, but also in church. Most composers were organists themselves, and it is notable that the keyboard parts usually don't extend the common range of the organ keyboard. The accompaniment for two violins and bass was pretty common at the time. Remember that Mozart's 'Epistle sonatas' also omit a viola part. Such a scoring is also in accordance with the practice of domestic music making. This explains why in most cases the performers opted for a line-up with one instrument per part. The Concerto in C by Johann Adam Scheibl is a notable exception to the rule, as the score includes two parts for trumpets. Such instruments were almost certainly not played in domestic surroundings. This scoring suggests a performance in church: Scheibl worked as organist at the Seitenstetten monastery and at the Augustine cannons at St Pölten. This concerto may well have been conceived for performance at the monastery or St Pölten Cathedral during mass between readings. From that angle, the performance here on the harpsichord is a little inconsistent.

That brings to the question which instrument to use. Martin Eybl, in his liner-notes, emphasizes that harpsichord and organ were largely exchangeable and that in later stages the fortepiano was also an option. It is impossible to decide which keyboard is the 'correct' one to play in this repertoire. Considering that the music included here was mostly written at the time that the fortepiano had not established itself, the choice of the harpsichord seems the most plausible.

As I already wrote, there are still some parts of music history which are little-known, and the repertoire which is performed here is part of that, more generally: Austrian keyboard music of the period just before Mozart's keyboard concertos made their appearance. From that perspective, this disc is of great importance. However, that is not all. The performers not only bring pieces and composers to our attention hardly anybody may have heard of - with the exception of Wagenseil - but they also perform them in accordance with the performance practice of the time and, even more important, of the region where they have been written. Michael Hell plays two harpsichords, an original instrument built by Johann Leydecker in 1755 and a modern copy of that same harpsichord. Leydecker worked in Austria as a builder of harpsichords and organs, and had contacts to Graz. The instrument played here is the only one that has survived. Michael Hell suggests it may have been played once by the above-mentioned Marianne, the wife of Count Joseph Bernhard von Attems. In the basso continuo, a Viennese bass - usually called Violone - has been used. It seems to me that these aspects are substantial in that they document the regional differences with regard to performance practice. That makes the interest in music from different regions - other than just Bach, Telemann or other generally-known composers, some of whom have worked in very different places - all the more important. For the cadenzas, Hell was inspired by those in concertos by CPE Bach and Haydn. Interesting are the short written-out cadenzas in the slow movements, which give some insight into performance practice of the time.

And that brings us to the performances. Starting with the issue of the cadenzas, considering that the written-out cadenzas in the slow movements are rather short and not very complicated, I just wonder whether Michael Hell should have opted for simpler cadenzas in the fast movements, also given that the music performed here is technically not to demanding and basically intended for amateurs. An interesting case is the Concerto in G by Casteli, about nothing is known at all, not even his Christian name or the correct spelling of his name. The keyboard part is simple, but the violin solo is virtuosic. It is notable that they are not involved in a dialogue, as the solo passages are almost entirely separated. A second issue is the choice of keyboard: as I already indicated, the organ may have been a more plausible choice in Scheibl's Concerto in C.

In the programme we also find some pieces for solo keyboard. These are used as introductions to the ensuing concertos: Casteli's concerto is preceded by Johann Michael Steinbacher's Pastorella in G, and the latter's Prelude in a minor precedes his own concerto in the same key. Apart from Wagenseil, Steinbacher is the only composer in the programme who has an entry in New Grove. Wagenseil is the only familiar composer in the programme, but it is no exaggeration to say that his oeuvre is largely neglected in modern performance practice. This is another reason why this disc is a substantial addition to the discography.

The playing by Michael Hell and the Neue Hofkapelle Graz, whose leader Lucia Froihofer is the excellent soloist in Casteli, is really first-class. Together they bring this repertoire, which may be technically not very demanding, but is at least always entertaining, to life. The performances, the precious historical harpsichord and the programming result in a most interesting disc, a fascinating encounter with a largely unknown musical world.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Luigi Accardo
Neue Hofkapelle Graz

CD Reviews