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"Schmelzer & Co - Music at the Habsburg Court"

Caecilia-Concert; Bruce Dickey, cornett; Bjarte Eike, violin; Antina Hugosson, violin, viola

rec: Jan 15 - 17, 2009, Mijnsheerenland (Neth), Laurentiuskerk
Challenge Classics - CC72339 ( 2009) (75'45")

Antonio BERTALI (1605-1669): Sonata 3; Sonata 3; Sonata 3; Giovanni Battista BUONAMENTE (c1595-1642): Ballo del Gran Duca; Marco Antonio FERRO (?-1662): Sonata XI 4; Johann Josef FUX (1660-1741): Sonata 4; Georg MUFFAT (1653-1704): Passacaglia; Massimiliano NERI (c1621-1666/after 1670): Sonata VI 5; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER: Sonata 2; Sonata 3; Sonata 3; Sonata La Carolietta; Bartolomeo DE SELMA Y SALAVERDE (fl 1638): Vestiva i Colli Passeggiata

Wouter Verschuren, dulcian; Adam Woolf, trombone; Kathryn Cok, harpsichord, organ

The Habsburg dynasty was one of the most powerful in Europe from the early 13th to the early 19th century. It also attracted the best musicians and composers to serve at its courts: their high standard was a reflection of the power and splendour of the rulers. Until the early 17th century the Kapellmeister at the court of the Austrian Habsburgs was always a representative of the so-called Franco-Flemish school. But in 1619, when Ferdinand II was elected as emperor, he replaced the musicians at the court in Vienna with the personnel of his own chapel in Graz. The new Kapellmeister was Giovanni Priuli, and with him the whole chapel came under Italian influence which would last until the early 19th century. One of the musicians entering the service of the new emperor was Antonio Bertali. It seems he served at the court since 1624, but the first firm evidence of his presence dates from 1631, when he is listed as an instrumentalist in the imperial chapel.

This disc is devoted to music by composers who for some time during their career worked for or at the imperial court in Vienna. The repertoire has been chosen because of the scoring with cornett, dulcian and trombone - instruments which would disappear around 1700. Bertali is represented by three sonatas for three instruments - two violins and either trombone or dulcian - and basso continuo. The wind parts are very virtuosic, in particular in two of the Sonate 3 by Bertali (tracks 6 and 7).

The latest composer on this disc who used these instruments was Johann Joseph Fux who was appointed vice-Kapellmeister in 1711, and four years later Kapellmeister, a position he held until his death. He was a rather conservative composer who had a strong preference for the stile antico. This is reflected by his Sonata 4 with its polyphonic texture. The scoring of violin, cornett, trombone, dulcian and bc is also referring to the past as this was a scoring which was frequently used around the middle of the 17th century.

For the same scoring Johann Heinrich Schmelzer composed the Sonata La Carolietta. Schmelzer was one of the few non-Italian musicians who was employed at the court, first as violinist, and from 1679 also as Kapellmeister, as successor to Giovanni Felice Sances. But only one year later he died of the plague. Schmelzer wrote mostly music for his own instrument, but also for instruments like the dulcian and trombone. The Sonata 2 (track 2) is scored for violin, dulcian and bc, the Sonata 3 (track 4) for violin, trombone, dulcian and bc, whereas the other Sonata 3 (track 12) is performed with two violins, trombone and bc.

Giovanni Battista Buonamente also was a violinist, and worked at the court in Vienna in the late 1620s. It seems he came first to Vienna in the retinue of Princess Eleonora Gonzaga for her wedding to emperor Ferdinand II in 1622, and later worked for some years as a chamber musician at the court. In his Ballo del Gran Duca, scored for two violins, dulcian and bc, he uses a subject many composers used for variations, among them Sweelinck and Frescobaldi.

Marco Antonio Ferro was a lutenist who worked at the court in Vienna from 1642 to 1652. From him only one collection of music for two to four instruments and bc is known. The scoring is for strings, but he offers alternative scorings for wind instruments as used in this recording. This, by the way, was very common at the time, and it is quite possible that several sonatas on this disc can be played with strings and bc, but the programme notes remain silent about that issue. In this recording the four instruments are split into two groups which is especially noticeable if one listens through headphones: one violin and the dulcian are on the left, the other violin and the trombone on the right.

The disc opens with a 5-part sonata by Massimiliano Neri. He never worked for the Viennese court, but Ferdinand III raised him to the nobility in 1651, when he probably visited Vienna at the occasion of the emperor's wedding. Almost all of his compositions have been preserved incomplete, so I assume some reconstruction has taken place. The Sonata VI 5 is played in a modern edition, but otherwise nothing is written about it in the liner notes.

The programme contains just one piece for a solo instrument and bc, Vestiva i Colli Passeggiato by Bartolomeo de Selma y Salaverde. These diminutions on Palestrina's madrigal are scored for dulcian, which is not surprising as the composer was a bassoonist by profession. He was of Spanish birth - his father had worked at the royal court in Madrid - and from 1628 to 1630 he played at the court of Archduke Leopold in Innsbruck. In the preface of his only published collection De Selma y Salaverde is praised for his control of breathing and tonguing. That is certainly necessary to play these diminutions, with their brilliant passagework and wide leaps.

In the light of the subject of this disc the choice of the Passacaglia for harpsichord by Georg Muffat is a little odd. It is from the famous collection Apparatus musico-organisticus which reflects the various national styles Muffat has become acquainted with during his career. This collection was dedicated to the emperor Leopold I, but he never held an official position at the court.

The programme is intelligently put together, and mixes well-known pieces - like Schmelzer's Sonata La Carolietta and Fux's Sonata 4 - with the less familiar. During the programme there is also a nice variety in scoring. In particular the interpretations of the wind players are impressive. It is very hard to play brilliant passages on the dulcian and even more the trombone, but Wouter Verschuren and Adam Woolf do so with apparent ease. It is not often that one hears their parts in such excellent performances.

Technically speaking the violinists are of the same calibre, but I am a little disappointed by their interpretations. In comparison to the cornett, the dulcian and the trombone their playing is a bit flat. I would especially have liked to hear more dynamic shading. The players of the wind instruments explore the dynamic possibilities of their respective instruments to the full, wheras the violinists do not. And as they play in almost every piece the disc as a whole is not as captivating as I had expected, both in relation to previous recordings by this ensemble and on the basis of the music played here. Another point is that in Buonamente's Ballo del Gran Duca a shift from organ to harpsichord takes place, something I don't understand.

Nevertheless, if you are interested in this repertoire this disc is not to be missed. The repertoire is really fascinating and the playing of the cornett, the dulcian and the trombone alone justifies a recommendation. The booklet contains liner notes but no list of sources of the various pieces.

Johan van Veen ( 2010)

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