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"The 19th-century viol"

Thomas Fritzsch, viola da gamba; Michael Schönheit, fortepianoa, organb; Merseburger Hofmusikc

rec: Oct 7 - 9, 2019, Naumburg, Klosterkirche Schulpforteac; Merseburg, Dom St. Johannes und St. Laurentiusb
Coviello Classics - COV92001 (© 2019) (78'09")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787): Concerto for viola da gamba, strings and bc in G (A9,2)c; Franz Xaver CHWATAL (1808-1879): Introduction et variations Amusantes sur l'air très favori 'Was soll ich in der Fremde thun' for viola da gamba and pianofortea; Friedrich Heinrich Florian GUHR (1791-1841): [Thema con] Variation for viola da gamba and orchestrac; Hermann Gustav JAESCHKE (1818-?): Variations on a theme from the opera 'Jakob und seine Söhne' by (Étienne) Méhul for viola da gamba and pianofortea; Franz LISZT (1811-1856): Consolation No. 4 in D flat, arr for viola da gamba and organ (Paul de Wit, 1852-1925)b; Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847): Lied ohne Worte in E, op. 30,3 (MWV U104), arr for viola da gamba and pianoforte (Friedrich Grützmacher, 1832-1903)a; Romanze 'Wartend' op. 9,3 (MWV K42), arr for viola da gamba and pianoforte (Paul de Wit)a; Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856): Abendlied op. 85,12, arr for viola da gamba and pianoforte (Edward John Payne, 1844-1904)a; Johann Ludwig WILLING (1755-1805): 9 Variations [sur l'air: Ei, ei, mein lieber Augustin] for viola da gamba and orchestra, op. 17c

[MH] Ulrike Wolf, Johanna Baumgärtel, transverse flute; Roberta Gottardi, Annette Riedinger, clarinet; Jens Pribbernow, Andreas Pöche, horn; Tobias Meier, bassoon; Eva Salonen, Friederike Lehnert, violin; Katharina Dargel, viola; Andreas Vetter, cello; Ulla Hoffmann, double bass

On 20 June 1787, Carl Friedrich Abel died in London. It was the end of an era: the viola da gamba died with him. That is to say: that was the general opinion at the time, expressed in several newspaper reports, and confirmed by the authoritative music historician Charles Burney, although the latter did not entirely commit himself, as he at first wrote that "the instrument seems laide aside". However, what has been written by him and others is still generally believed: the death of Abel was also the death of the playing of and composing for the viola da gamba. The disc under review here proves that this view is wrong. Thomas Fritzsch, who a few years ago discovered the lost fantasias for viola da gamba solo by Telemann, and also dug up several works by Abel, has done some research into viol playing in the 19th century.

It is notable that between 1812 and 1826 the English violin and cello maker Samuel Gilkes (1787-1827), built three bass viols. That would not make any sense if there was no interest in playing the viol. Fritzsch, in his liner-notes, points out that quite a number of bass viols were available at the time, and concludes that "it is hard to imagine that he worked without commission. There must have been gambists, then, who preferred gambas created by this master's hands."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also believed that the viola da gamba had become extinct, and his opinion became part of German musical conscience during the 19th century. Fritzsch admits that for a long time he also held the belief that "I was excluded from participating in the sound world of the 19th century". One of the clues to a change of view in this matter came from an article by Friedrich Hieronymus Truhn, which was published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, edited by Robert Schumann, in 1840. He referred to the autobiography of Johann Friedrich Reichardt of 1805, in which he mentions that the organist Christian Wilhelm Podbielski of Königsberg "in addition to his actual instrument, the organ and the piano, also played the viola di gamba with great delicacy, and in the weighty, broad manner of the French and Italian school of the time". Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, in Ideen zur einer Ästhetik der Tonkunst (1806), characterises the viola da gamba as an instrument "of exceptional grace". He goes on by saying that it may be perfectly suited for the performance of Nachtstücke, the kind of pieces that were so popular during the romantic era.

A person who played a major role in the survival of the viola da gamba into the romantic era was Joachim Carl Count Maltzan (1733-1817) from lower Silesia and his descendants. The Count had been a diplomat for Prussia in London, where he had become a pupil of Abel. In recent years several recordings have been devoted to pieces which have been in his possession, known as the Maltzan Collection. In 1784 he settled in Breslau (today Wroclaw) and acquired a viola da gamba, built by Johann Caspar Göbler. In 1786 he succeeded his father as the ruler of Militsch (today Milicz, Poland) and from 1790 to 1796 he had a new palace built. Until 1810 he organized concerts of his court orchestra, in which the viola da gamba took a central place. Joachim Carl's son Joachim Alexander Casimir had inherited his father's passion for music, and it seems likely that he also played the viola da gamba.

The programme recorded by Thomas Fritzsch opens with a viola da gamba concerto by Carl Friedrich Abel, which for this recording was reconstructed by Fritzsch and Günter von Zadow. It marks the transition from the baroque era to the romantic period. Fritzsch plays here the viola da gamba that was once in the possession of Count Maltzan.

The heart of the programme are four works for the viola da gamba that are part of the Maltzan Collection. Hermann Gustav Jaeschke, a blind violin virtuoso from Breslau, dedicated his Variationen für Viola di Gamba und Piano-Forte über ein Thema to Joachim Alexander Casimir. The theme is taken from Joseph, an opéra comique by Étienne-Nicolas Méhul, also known with the German title Jakob und seine Söhne. Carl Wilhelm Ferdinand Guhr (1787-1848) was a member of the court orchestra and composed a number of works for or with viola da gamba, among them solo concertos. Unfortunately his compositions for the Maltzan orchestra seem to have been lost. Fritzsch therefore recorded a piece by Guhr's younger brother Friedrich Heinrich Florian, who was also a member of the court orchestra: a Theme with variations for viola da gamba and orchestra. Johann Ludwig Willing worked as an organist and concertmaster in Nordhausen. He was one of many composers who wrote variations on the folksong Ach, du lieber Augustin, albeit under a slightly different title. The origin of this song is not entirely clear; there are different explanations of what it is about. Willing's variations for viola da gamba and orchestra were published in 1804 by Johann André in a version for bassoon and orchestra. The fourth piece from the Maltzan collection is a piece by Franz Xaver Chwatal, who was of Bohemian origin and worked as a music teacher, pianist and composer in Merseburg. This is another piece that was published in a different version, for pianoforte à quatre mains this time, and as the keyboard part of the piece in the Maltzan Collection is missing, it was reconstructed from that printed version.

The remaining pieces are all arrangements of compositions originally written for other scorings. They give us an interesting insight into the playing of the viola da gamba in the 19th century. Edward John Payne was an English barrister and historian who specialized in colonial history. He also played the viola da gamba; in 1880 he gave a lecture recital, in which he played pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel, Caix d'Hervelois and Abel. Schumann's Abendlied was written for pianoforte à trois mains; Payne made an arrangement for viola da gamba and pianoforte. Only the gamba part has survived, and this includes fingerings, which provide the interpreter with information about his performance practice. From this arrangement, Fritzsch concludes that Payne approached music for the viola da gamba as 'contemporary music'.

Paul de Wit is another interesting exponent of the 19th-century viola da gamba. He was born in Maastricht in the Netherlands, where he studied the cello. In 1879 he settled in Leipzig, where the started the publication of a periodical devoted to early instruments. It run until World War II. In 1886 he opened his private collection of historical instruments to the public, among them a viola da gamba of 1702. He gave many gamba recitals in an attempt to revive the popularity of the instrument. He included 19th-century music, such as Franz Liszt's Consolation in D flat, which he performed in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1882. A reviewer stated that De Wit "revealed his instrument's beauty and character, which can't be praised enough, to the delight of all".

Lastly, Friedrich Grützmacher was a brilliant cellist who from 1860 was a member of the court chapel in Dresden. His connection to the viola da gamba is unclear; his arrangement of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's Lied ohne Worte op. 30,3 is not discussed in the liner-notes, and the entry in New Grove also does not mention the viola da gamba.

The reader may have gathered that this disc is highly interesting and important from a historical point of view. The general opinion that the viola da gamba had sunk into complete oblivion during the 19th century and was only revived thanks to the efforts of the advocates of 'early music', has to be reconsidered. I tend to think that this even goes for the whole concept of a 'revival' of early music, which is assumed to have started with the activities of the Dolmetsch family. Given that the above-mentioned Payne played Bach and Handel, and even a far lesser famous composer as Caix d'Hervelois, there seems to be rather a continuum in the performance of 'early music'. That said, the viola da gamba was not a common instrument, but rather a curiosity. The fact that Willing's variations were published with a solo part for the bassoon attests to that.

One has to be thankful to Thomas Fritzsch for his research into the compositions for and performance practice of the viola da gamba during the 19th century. One can only agree with the closing statement in his liner-notes: "It is conceivable that the ninetheenth century consitutes an important chapter in the history of the viola da gamba, waiting to be discovered if and when we have changed our opinions/views about its 'revival'".

I would like to add that this disc is also very compelling from a musical point of view. It is interesting to hear the viola da gamba in repertoire that one would not associate with it. Fritzsch once again proves to be an outstanding player and interpreter. He rightly does not play the repertoire in a 'baroque' manner, but in accordance with the taste and habits of the romantic period. In addition to the Göbler gamba that he uses in the Abel concerto, he plays two other historical instruments, built by the above-mentioned Samuel Gilkes. Fritzsch receives excellent support from the Merseburger Hofmusik and Michael Schönheit. The latter plays two different fortepianos: in Abel it is a Broadwood of 1793, in the other pieces an instrument by Franz Beyer (Vienna, 1820). The organ in Merseburg Cathedral is an instrument by Friedrich Ladegast of 1855.

This disc is to be strongly recommended equally to viola da gamba aficionados, lovers of 19th-century music and those who have a special interest in historical performance practice and organology.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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