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Johann Christian BACH (1735 - 1782): "Six Quartettos Opus 8 for Carl Friedrich Abel"

Go Arai, oboe; Daniel Deuter, violin; Thomas Fritzsch, viola da gamba; Inka Döring, cello

rec: Feb 7 - 10, 2017, Berlin-Zehlendorf, Betsaal of the Evangelischer Diakonieverein Berlin-Zehlendorf e.V.
Coviello Classics - COV 91712 (© 2017) (75'23")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Quartet No. 1 in C (Warb B 51); Quartet No. 2 in D (Warb B 52); Quartet No. 3 in G (Warb B 55); Quartet No. 4 in B flat (Warb B 56); Quartet No. 5 in F (Warb B 54); Quartet No. 6 in E flat (Warb B 53)

The connection between Johann Christian Bach, youngest son of Johann Sebastian, and the gambist Carl Friedrich Abel is well documented, especially through the concert series they organized together in London, known as the Bach-Abel concerts. However, the acquaintance between the two seems to have been of a much earlier date. Abel was the son of Christian Ferdinand, who played the viola da gamba in the court chapel of Prince Leopold I of Anhalt-Cöthen, when Johann Sebastian Bach was appointed Kapellmeister in 1717. They were good friends, and the English music historian Charles Burney, who knew Carl Friedrich Abel personally, wrote that he went to Leipzig after his father's death in 1737. In the next years he may have been in regular contact with the Bach family. By 1743 Abel played in the Dresden court chapel when Johann Adolf Hasse was its director. When Frederick the Great destroyed the city Abel left, first for Frankfurt and then for London. Here he arrived in 1758 and gave his first public concert the next year. In 1762 Johann Christian Bach settled in London, having studied and worked for several years in Italy.

In 1765 the Bach-Abel concerts started and they came to an end with the death of Johann Christian in 1782. It is not known exactly what kind of music was performed during these concerts; they were announced in the newspapers but the programmes were not mentioned. Bach and Abel also played during benefit concerts, about which more is known in regard to the music which was performed. In addition the two composers regularly participated in the concerts at the court. Abel is known to have played his own instrument in private circles, with friends and pupils. There he mostly played his own music, often largely improvised.

Until recently only a couple of pieces with a viola da gamba part from the pen of Johann Christian Bach were known. The present disc includes six quartets for oboe, violin, viola da gamba and bass. However, this scoring was not intended by the composer. The Bach-Archiv in Leipzig owns the collection of Elias N. Kulukundis; it includes several sonatas for the viola da gamba by Johann Christian. In this collection the present set of quartets has also been found, except the sixth which is missing. These quartets were originally intended for oboe (with transverse flute or violin as alternatives), violin, viola and bass. They may have been inspired by or even composed specifically for the oboe virtuoso Johann Christian Fischer, who arrived in London by 1768. Several editions of the quartets op. 8 are known, printed in London, Amsterdam and Paris respectively. In the latter two editions the order of the quartets is different.

The manuscript in the Kulukundis collection probably dates from the early 1770s. Its title-page has 'Viola da Gamba' instead of viola. It is assumed that it may have been put together in the East Midlands. At the time of its creation the viola da gamba played a relatively marginal role in music life. Apart from Abel very few professional gamba players were around. However, it had remained popular among amateurs; Abel's pupils were all amateurs from aristocratic circles. Unfortunately the viola da gamba parts are missing from the manuscript as is the complete sixth quartet. "Undaunted, Thomas Fritzsch has been able to restructure the former viola part for the viola da gamba, through close study of the remaining manuscript instrumental parts and the various publications of the quartets in London, Paris and Amsterdam and has made an edition of the missing E flat quartet", Stephen Roe states in the booklet. In Abel's time viola and viola da gamba were often considered alternatives. Carl Philipp Emanuel's oeuvre includes a trio with alternative parts for the two instruments. Recently Simone Eckert recorded two of Abel's string quartets op. 8 whose viola parts were arranged for viola da gamba. This is another indication of the playing of this instrument in amateur circles in England.

Obviously it is quite possible to question the practice of reconstructing missing parts or lost arrangements. How far should we go and when does reconstructing turns into pure speculation? In this case Fritzsch could rely on what was available in several editions. I can't assess the results of his labour, but considering his skills which he has shown in several previous recordings, we may assume that he has done a good job.

There is every reason to be happy with what is presented here. The quartets op. 8 have never been recorded in any scoring, which testifies to the fact that Johann Christian Bach is still rather underestimated. There is no reason at all to ignore these pieces which are very fine indeed. They comprise two movements, as was common in music of a diverting nature. The latter should not give the impression that this is easy-listening stuff; some of the parts don't seem that easy to play and the set includes movements of considerable length. The fashion of the time comes especially to the fore in the second movements, which are a menuet, a rondo or a set of variations.

These quartets receive excellent performances by all the participants. Go Arai produces a nice tone and plays with great flexibility. Daniel Deuter delivers energetic performances, with some strong dynamic accents. The two instruments complement each other nicely. The viola da gamba could have had a little more presence, but it is probably inevitable that it can't quite compete with the oboe. However, Fritzsch plays his part beautifully. The foundation comes from Inka Döring on the cello, but her instrument's role is confined to that of a bass, without any independent melodic material.

This disc sheds light on the role of the viola da gamba in England in the second half of the 18th century and is also a good argument in favour of Johann Christian Bach's chamber music, which deserves more attention than it has been given so far.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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