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"Music for a King - Chamber works from the Court of Frederick the Great"


rec: Nov 2018, London, St Michael's, Highgate
Channel Classics - CCS 41819 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (1.38'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Duetto for transverse flute and violin in G (Wq 150 / H 598); Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Musicalisches Opfer (BWV 1079) (Ricercar a 3)a; Franz BENDA (1709-1786): Sonata for violin and bc in E (L III,46); Carl Friedrich Christian FASCH (1738-1800): Andantino con VII Variazioni in G, op. 17b; Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1704-1759): Sonata for cello and bc in C (Graun WV B,XVII,53); Johann Gottlieb GRAUN (1703-1771): Quintet for transverse flute, violin, viola da gamba, cello and harpsichord in a minor (Graun WV Av,XIV,14); Johann Gottfried MÜTHEL (1728-1788): Sonata for transverse flute and bc in Db; Johann Joachim QUANTZ (1697-1773): Sonata for transverse flute, violin and bc in e minor (QV 2,20);

Ashley Solomon, transverse flute; Bojan Cicic, violin; Reiko Ichise, viola da gamba; Jennifer Morsches, cello; Terence Charlston, harpsichorda; Julian Perkins, harpsichord, clavichordb

Under Frederick the Great the Prussian chapel, first in Rheinsberg, then in Berlin, developed into one of the best in Germany in the mid-18th century. Frederick's musical taste is often described as rather conservative and unimaginative, but he certainly recognized talent in the players and composers around. As a result, his chapel included some of the finest and most brilliant musicians of his time, such as the Graun and Benda brothers, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Joachim Quantz. The latter was his flute teacher, as the King was a fanatical player of the transverse flute, who loved to perform the sonatas and concertos of his teacher. He himself also wrote music, but the results of his compositional activities are generally considered rather mediocre. Therefore none of them is included in the present production of music by composers who were in his service.

The pieces selected for this recording were not necessarily written for performance at Frederick's court. The king did not like CPE Bach's compositions, for instance, and therefore his harpsichordist may have performed most of his works in private concerts in Berlin, for instance at the Freitagsakademie, founded by Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, another of the chapel's members who is not represented in this recording. The various composers connected to Frederick are pretty well represented on disc, but considering the size of their extant oeuvre, it is quite possible to record music which is little known. The nice thing about this production is that even the better-known of them are represented here with less 'conventional' pieces. Quantz, for instance, is almost exclusively known for his flute sonatas and concertos, but here Florilegium plays a trio sonata for flute and violin. Carl Heinrich Graun was a composer of vocal works in the first place, but here we get a sonata for cello and basso continuo. It is notable that in two sonatas the viola da gamba participates in the basso continuo rather than the cello. This may well be inspired by the fact that this instrument, which was about to become absolete elsewhere in Europe, was still played at Frederick's court, thanks to Ernst Christian Hesse, the brilliant gambist, for whom Johann Gottlieb Graun wrote several solo concertos.

The latter is represented with a rather unconventional piece as well: a quintet for transverse flute, violin, viola da gamba, cello and harpsichord. With its parts for cello and viola da gamba, this work connects the past and the future. The harpsichord does not play the basso continuo, but has an obbligato part, another token of its emancipation of which Johann Sebastian Bach's oeuvre includes several examples, such as the sonatas for harpsichord and violin. He is represented here, right at the start of the first disc, with the Ricercare a 3 from his Musicalisches Opfer, which was the direct effect of his meeting with Frederick the Great. It is not entirely clear what kind of instrument he played when the king asked him to improvise. It has been suggested it was a fortepiano, but the Ricercare is played here at the harpsichord.

The most remarkable items are those in which the keyboard is a clavichord. This instrument produces a sound which is too soft and too refined for today's concert venues. The instrument was mainly meant to be used in private homes or the salons of the aristocracy. Even in smallish rooms one has too sit pretty close to the instrument to hear it. Any attempt to make it louder, either by forcing the dynamical possibilities or by electronic means, completely destroys its characteristics. In recordings it is almost exclusively used for keyboard pieces. One of these is the Andantino con VII Variazioni by Carl Friedich Christian Fasch, son of the composer Johann Friedrich. With its sudden changes in dynamics and tempo it is a typical product of the Sturm und Drang, one of the fashions of his time, and tailor-made for the clavichord. Recordings of a clavichord playing with other instruments, are extremely rare. One such a recording is a disc with music by members of the Bach family, in which Benjamin-Joseph Steens plays the clavichord, with Jacques-Antoine Bresch playing the transverse flute. In his liner-notes to that recording, Bresch states that the clavichord was used this way, but he comes up with very little firm historical evidence. In the booklet to the present recording the issue is not discussed at all. That said, it is certainly interesting to hear Johann Gottfried Müthel's Sonata in D with the clavichord in the basso continuo. It can only fully appreciated at a low volume, in order not to compromise the clavichord's natural sound.

Müthel is one of the least-known composers in this recording. Franz Benda is much better known, but it would be an exaggeration to say that his violin sonatas are part of today's standard repertoire. In fact, there are not that many recordings available, and it is a mystery to me why he receives so little attention. He was considered one of the greatest violinists of his time. Whether the Sonata in E has been recorded before, is impossible for me to check, as the track-list does not give a catalogue number. In the end, it hardly matters: any recording of his violin sonatas is very welcome.

Bojan Cicic is exactly the right man to show its qualities. I have enjoyed previous recordings of his, and in this production he once again proves to be one of today's best exponents of the baroque violin. I have been critical in the past about recordings of Florilegium, which I sometimes found too restrained, but here it is in fine form and shows the right approach to the selected pieces. Obviously some items require restraint, such as Müthel's sonata, because of the use of a clavichord. Other pieces rightly receive a bolder approach, such as Quantz's trio sonata, especially in its closing movement. The interplay of the performers in Johann Gottlieb Graun's quintet is excellent. Fasch's variations receive a compelling performance from Julian Perkins.

To sum up, this is a very fine set of discs, which demonstrates the brilliance and versatility of music making at the court of Frederick the Great.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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