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"Gamba Concertos"

Thomas Fritzsch, viola da gamba
Merseburger Hofmusik
Dir: Michael Schönheit

rec: Jan 30 - Feb 2, 2017, Saale (D), Schlosskapelle Saalfeld
Coviello Classics - COV 91710 (© 2017) (66'06")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787): Concerto for viola da gamba, strings and bc in A (A9:1A); Sonata for viola da gamba and bc in g minor (A2:56A); Sonata for viola da gamba and pianoforte concertato in C (A4:1)a; Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782): Sonata for pianoforte and viola da gamba obligato in C (Warb B,3b); Johann Carl [I.] Graf ZU HARDECK (1703-1752): Concerto for viola da gamba, two violins and bc in F; Anton MILLING (2nd half 18th C): Concerto for viola da gamba, strings and bc in d minor; Anton RAETZEL (c1724-after 1760): Concerto for viola da gamba, strings and bc in A
N.B. The A numbers to the pieces by Abel refer to a catalogue of his works, put together by Peter Holman

Eva Salonen, Saskia Klapper, violin; Katharina Dargel, viola; Andreas Vetter, cello; Michael Schönheit, fortepiano (soloa)

It is generally assumed that the viola da gamba, which was one of the main instruments in the 17th century, lost its position during the first half of the 18th century. That is true as far as England is concerned, which came increasingly under the influence of the Italian style. In France it also lost some ground to the cello, but there were still some high-calibre gambists around, such as Jean-Baptiste Forqueray. In Germany Berlin was a centre of viol playing, and that lasted well into the second half of the 18th century. Thomas Fritzsch, a German gambist, who in recent years has brought a considerable number of compositions for his instrument to light, mentions even solo concertos from the early 19th century.

In the liner-notes to his recording of recently discovered concertos and sonatas he refers to pieces which are included in the catalogues of the music printer Breitkopf but have never been found. Among them are concertos by Carl Wilhelm Ferdinand Guhr who lived from 1787 to 1848. He is hardly known, and that also goes for most of the composers represented at the present disc.

Four of the compositions in the programme are part of the so-called Ledenburg collection. In 2000 the Archives of the Land of Lower-Saxony obtained music, drawings and other archival material of the Ledenburg estate in the former princely bishopric of Osnabrück. In March 2015 the French musicologist François-Pierre Goy referred Fritzsch to the musical items, which comprise almost exclusively music for the viola da gamba. Part of the collection are the twelve fantasias for viola da gamba solo by Georg Philipp Telemann, which were long considered being lost and recorded recently by Fritzsch. In the collection are also pieces by Carl Friedrich Abel, one of the most prominent players of the viola da gamba in the second half of the 18th century. He was from Germany, but settled in London where he played his instrument in public concerts and in domestic surroundings. Here he also had a number of pupils. One of them could have been Count Joachim Carl of Maltzan, a Prussian diplomat who was sent to London in 1766 to act as Prussian ambassador. When he was recalled in 1782, he stayed for several years in England at his own expense. The two sonatas by Abel and the sonata by Johann Christian Bach are both taken from the collection which was part of the music archive of his palace in Militsch (today Milicz in Poland), where he settled in 1786. Interestingly the above-mentioned Guhr was a member of his chapel and was commissioned to compose concertos and chamber music for the viola da gamba. Thomas Fritzsch plays the pieces from this collection on the instrument which was once owned by Count Maltzan. The fact that the other pieces are played on an instrument built in London in 1812 bears witness to the fact that the viola da gamba was played much longer than one is probably inclined to think.

The Ledenburg collection includes the concertos by the German composers in the programme. Nothing is known about Anton Milling; up until now only two concertos for cor anglais and some music for wind ensemble were known. Milling is not included in New Grove, nor is Count Johann Carl I of Hardeck (or Hardegg). According to the score of Antonio Caldara's opera Euristea he worked as a cellist at the imperial court in Vienna around 1724. The Concerto in F recorded here is his only known composition. It is a hybrid piece which mixes elements of the concerto and the orchestral overture. It is in five movements: vivace, allegro, largo, menuet and Harlaquin, the latter being a kind of character piece as we find them also in some of Telemann's orchestral suites. Notable is also that the scoring is that of a concerto da camera: viola da gamba, two violins and basso continuo, without a viola part.

The third composer, Anton Raetzel (or Retzel) is also not mentioned in New Grove. What we know about him is taken from the Historisch-biographisches Lexicon der Tonkünstler of 1790-92 by the German scholar Ernst Ludwig Gerber. He was Kapellmeister to the Duke of Holstein, was educated at the bassoon and composed vocal and instrumental music "in the manner of Graun". Breitkopf catalogues from 1761 to 1770 include a number of solo concertos for various instruments, but the viola da gamba concerto included here seems to be his only extant work. The Ledenburg collection also includes a Concerto Violo de Gambo in A, but as the cover has been lost the composer is not known. However, on stylistic grounds Thomas Fritzsch and Peter Holman have come to the conclusion, that this must be one of the lost concertos from Abel's pen.

It does not often happen that all the compositions on a disc are world premiere recordings, but that is exactly the case here. They also share the fate that they are incomplete; all of them have been reconstructed by Wolfgang Kostujak, but the booklet does not mention in every case what exactly was missing. Undoubtedly this disc is highly interesting and includes major additions to the repertoire. In addition to the pieces by Abel and the three German concertos we also find here an apparently hitherto unknown sonata by Johann Christian Bach. This may well have been intended for Abel, with whom he closely worked together, for instance in the Bach-Abel concerts. The catalogue of Johann Christian Bach's oeuvre includes a sonata for keyboard and viola da gamba in F which is preserved in a private collection in the USA, but this sonata is a different piece. It is in the then common diverting style, with two movements.

It is not only the repertoire which makes this disc an attractive proposition. The same goes for the performances. Thomas Fritzsch is an outstanding interpreter, who plays the pieces with much imagination and flair; this recording is a most eloquent case for these unknown pieces. His colleagues - the members of the Merseburger Hofmusik and Michael Schönheit - are his equal partners. My only reservation is the use of a Broadwood fortepiano of 1805 in all the pieces. In some a harpsichord may have been more appropriate, in other cases an earlier instrument and probably a German-type fortepiano would have been preferable.

However, in the light of the level of music-making and the importance of the repertoire this is a minor detail. This is a highly important release: it presents major additions to the repertoire for the viola da gamba and also increases our knowledge of the history of composing for and playing of the instrument in the second half of the 18th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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