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"Genève au siècles des Lumières" (Geneva at the time of the Enlightenment)

Le Harmoniche Sferea
Orchestre baroque de la HEM (Florence Malgoire)b

rec: May 2016, Corseaux (CH), Salle de Châtonneyrea; June 2016, Geneva, Studio Ernest Ansermet
Claves - 1610/11 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (56'36"b / 55'35"a)
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

GASPARD FRITZ (1716-1783): Sonata for violin and bc in B flat, op. 3,5a; Symphony in G, op. 6,3b; Symphony in g minor, op. 6,6b; Nicolas SCHERRER (1747-1821): Sonata for pianoforte and violin in F, op. 4a; Sonata for cello and pianoforte in b flat minor, op. 5a; Sonata 'en Sinfonie' for pianoforte and violin in D, op. 8a; FRIEDRICH SCHWINDL (1737-1786): Duo for violin and cello in B flat, op. 6a; Symphony in C, op. 10,1b; Symphony in E flat, op. 10,3b

[LHS] Denitsa Kazakova, violin; Esmé de Vries, cello; Paolo Corsi, fortepiano

May I challenge you? Mention the name of a composer from Geneva, who played a major role in the city's musical life before 1800. I am pretty sure you won't come up with an answer. Those who have a more than average knowledge of music history will probably connect Geneva with the Genevan or Huguenot Psalter, which was put together in the mid-16th century and is still used among Calvinists across the world. But that's all. It is telling that the article on Geneva in New Grove consists of only five paragraphs.

The period before the 18th century takes just one paragraph, in which the Genevan Psalter is mentioned. The second paragraph opens with the sentence: "A musical renaissance began in the 18th century." It is mentioned that a theatre was opened and the organ of St Pierre was reconstructed; those events happened in 1738 and 1756 respectively. And then we meet the composer who was to play a crucial role in musical life in the second half of the 18th century: Gaspard Fritz. He is one of the composers who figures in the set of two discs under review here.

His original Christian name was Kaspar. His father, Philipp, was from Celle in Germany and had settled in Geneva as a music teacher. According to Charles Burney Gaspard was a pupil of Giovanni Battista Somis in Turin, but in 1736 he was back in Geneva where he stayed the rest of his life. He seems to have moved in aristocratic circles as the dedications of his various publications indicate. He acted as director of the musical performances of English residents of Geneva and also as a teacher, apparently to great acclaim. However, his playing did not meet universal approval. The English journalist Charles Burney visited him in Geneva in 1770. At his request Fritz played "one of his solos, which, though extremely difficult, was pleasing; and not withstanding his time of life, he still performs with as much spirit as a young man of twenty-five". He added that "his bowing and expression are admirable". However, when Fritz performed at the Concert Spirituel in Paris in 1756, the reception wasn't overly enthusiastic. This is mostly attributed to his Italian style of playing, but that seems questionable. After all, Italian music was well appreciated by Paris audiences at the time, and the Italian-influenced sonatas by Leclair went down very well with them. Another contemporary stated that Fritz's ornamentation was excessive and that he sometimes lost his rhythm.

The second disc includes one of the sonatas from a set of six, which Fritz published as his Op. 3 in Paris in 1756; they were dedicated to John Penn, the later governor of Pennsylvania. They are technically challenging: Fritz makes use of double stopping and the violin regularly moves to the upper ranges of its tessitura. It is interesting that Fritz included dynamic indications and wrote out ornamentation. The Sonata in B flat gives a good impression of Fritz's skills.

Fritz published only one set of symphonies: the Op. 6 from which the two symphonies in this production are taken. They were printed in Paris, probably in 1770/71. However, in 1742 six Sonate a 4 stromenti were published in London, and these are also sometimes taken as symphonies. La Stagione Frankfurt included two of them in its recording of five symphonies for CPO. It is a bit disappointing that the present recording includes two works which are also part of the CPO disc. It would have been nice if we had found here Symphony No. 4, which as far as I know has never been recorded. Symphonies 3 and 6 are scored for an orchestra with two flutes, two horns, strings and bc, and come in three movements. They are examples of the early classical symphony. I like the playing of the Orchestre baroque de la Hem de Genève, but overall I prefer here La Stagione Frankfurt, whose interpretations have more profile, due to stronger dynamic accents and more satisfying tempi. Especially the andante allegretto from the Symphony in G is too slow, and is closer to an adagio than to an andante.

The two other composers in this set are even lesser known than Fritz. Friedrich Schwindl was from Karlsruhe and held several posts in Germany, before moving to the Netherlands around 1770. Shortly after settling there he travelled to Switzerland, where he gave concerts in Zurich. In the mid-1770s he was active in Zurich and in Geneva, until 1780, when he took a position in his birthplace Karlsruhe. Although he composed vocal works and chamber music, he has become especially known for his symphonies. They were performed across Europe, including at the Concert Spirituel in Paris. Johann Adam Hiller ranked him among those composers who had contributed worthwhile pieces to the symphonic repertory. However, they are badly represented on disc. One of his symphonies has been recorded by the Karlsruher Barockorchester and another one by the New Dutch Academy (Pentatone, 2010). That is all there is. The symphonies recorded here are from a set of three, printed as the Op. 10 in 1782 in Amsterdam and The Hague. They are in four movements and are full-blooded classical symphonies. It is telling that some of his symphonies have sometimes been attributed to Haydn. The Symphony in B flat opens - like many of Haydn's symphonies - with a slow introduction. I like the performances of Schwindl's symphonies better than those of Fritz's works, although that may also be due to a lack of competition. Even so, the tempi are more satisfying and overall the playing is more energetic. The expression in the slow movements comes off well.

The second disc, devoted to chamber music, offers the only specimen of Schwindl's chamber music on disc. It is a nice duet for violin and cello in three movements. It is just one of the many different forms of chamber music written during the second half of the 18th century. Also characteristic are the sonatas by Nicolas Scherrer (or Scherer). He was the son of an organ builder, who was from Sankt Gallen and who was responsible for the building of the organ in St Pierre in Geneva, mentioned above. It is not known where Nicolas was born, but he worked in Geneva as a keyboard player. Therefore it is hardly surprising that he composed music with an obbligato part for keyboard. The Opp. 3, 4 and 8 each include three sonatas for keyboard and violin. Such a scoring was very common in the second half of the 18th century, and many collections of such sonatas were written by French composers. The violin part largely plays colla parte with the right hand of the keyboard; it adds colour and also some dynamic shading, although that it less important if the keyboard part is played at the fortepiano, as is the case here. As so many sonatas of this kind the Sonata in F from the Op. 4 and the Sonata in D from Op. 8 are in two movements; in both pieces the second is a rondo. Scherrer also published two sets of six sonatas each for cello and basso continuo. The Sonata in B flat comprises an adagio and an allegro. It is a nice work, suggesting that these two sets are fine additions to the repertoire for the cello. A recording of these pieces would be most welcome. That also goes for the two other sonatas. The chamber music receives excellent interpretations by Le Harmoniche Sfere. The use of an original fortepiano by Johann Andreas Stein of 1782 adds to the attraction of these performances.

As said above, the three works by Fritz recorded here are already available on disc. Although it is a little disappointing that the performers did not select pieces from his oeuvre which still wait to be recorded, this production is most welcome. It shows again that Fritz was a fine composer, and it is to be hoped that further parts of his oeuvre will be recorded. The same goes for Schwindl and Scherrer, two composers whose oeuvres deserve to be further explored. Despite some critical remarks in regard to the performance of Fritz's symphonies, overall the playing of both ensembles is fine and as a result this set of discs gives much to enjoy.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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