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CD reviews

Music at the Imperial court in Vienna c1700 - c1750

[I] "Alme Ingrate - Imperial Arias by Emperor Joseph I, Ziani, Fux & Caldara"
Lydia Teuscher, soprano
Capricornus Ensemble Stuttgart
Dir: Henning Wiegräbe
rec: August 14 - 17, 2013
Coviello Classics - COV 21311 (© 2013) (67'44")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Antonio CALDARA (c1670-1736): La Passione di Gesù Cristo Signor Nostro (Dovunque il guardo giro); Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo (In un bivio è il mio volere; Pompe inutili); Naboth (Dio, qual sia); Sonata in B flat, op. 2,12; Johann Joseph FUX (1660-1741): Alma redemptoris mater (K 186); Il fonte della salute (Vedi che il Redentor); Sonata à 3 (K 373); Sonata à 3 in d minor (E 68); Sonata à 3 in a minor (K 365); JOSEPH I. (1678-1711): Alme ingrate; Tutto in pianto il cor struggete; Marc'Antonio ZIANI (c1653-1715): Il mistico Giobbe (Quel sembiante così bello)

Christian Leitherer, descant chalumeau; Henning Wiegräbe, trombone; Leila Schayegh, Katharina Heutjer, violin; Patrick Sepec, cello; Matthias Spaeter, archlute; Johannes Strobl, organ

[II] "Fede e Amor - Baroque Music with Trombones from the Viennese Imperial Court"
Alex Potter, alto
Ensemble La Fontaine
rec: Oct 2012, Rheinfelden, Schloss Beuggen
Ramée - RAM 1304 (© 2013) (79'38")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Antonio CALDARA (c1670-1736): Joaz (Così a fiume); Morte e sepoltura di Christo (Fortunata alma mia - Languire, morite, rec & aria); Pietro CASATI (1684-1745): Salve Regina; Francesco Bartolomeo CONTI (c1681-1732): Il David perseguitato da Saul (Fuggo d'una in altra selva); Ignazio Maria CONTI (1699-1759): La Distruzione d'Hai (Se potesse la mia mente); Johann Joseph FUX (1660-1741): Jesu Christo nell'orto (Dal limbo già ti chiama); Sonata à 3 in d minor (E 68); Sonata à 3 in d minor (K 379); Sonata à 3 in a minor (K 365); Giuseppe PORSILE (1680-1750): Il Trionfo di Giuditta (Io teco ne vo' lieto - La sovrana eterna mente, rec & aria); Frantisek Ignac TUMA (1704-1774): Sonata a 2 violini e 2 Tromboni in Conc.; Marc'Antonio ZIANI (c1653-1715): Alma redemptoris mater

Catherine Motuz, Simen Van Mechelen, trombone; Carles Cristóbal, bassoon; Regula Keller, Fanny Pestalozzi, violin; Johannes Frisch, viola; Reto Cuonz, cello; Giuseppe Lo Sardo, violone; Johannes Strobl, organ

The Habsburg dynasty was one of the most powerful in Europe from the early 13th to the early 19th century. It was also a major power in cultural artistic matters. It attracted the best musicians and composers to serve at its courts. Their high standard was a reflection of the power and splendour of the rulers. The imperial court in Vienna was one of the main musical centres, especially from 1640 to 1740, under the emperors Ferdinand III, Leopold I, Joseph I and Charles VI. All four were also active in music themselves, both as performers and as composers. Charles VI even conducted a performance of the opera Costanza e Fortezza, written by his Kapellmeister Johann Joseph Fux. Musical life at the court had a strong Italian flavour: most of the musicians in the service of the Habsburg emperors were from Italy.

It is not surprising that the repertoire composed for or performed at the court exerts a great attraction to ensembles. That is reflected by the respectable number of recordings. However, the repertoire is so huge that it is not hard to put together a programme with music which has not been recorded before. The question then is how to select the music for a recording. In recent years some ensembles have approached the repertoire from different angles.

The ensemble Hamburger Ratsmusik recorded music for viol consort. This kind of music was still very much in vogue in Vienna. The Calamus Consort devoted a disc to music with parts for chalumeau and clarinet. The two discs to be reviewed here focus on repertoire with obbligato parts for trombone. These different angles reveal a specific feature of musical life in Vienna: the mixture of 'old' and 'new'.

The viol consort was old-fashioned around 1700 and had become obsolete at the European continent. The fact that the emperors liked consort music had everything to do with their preference for traditional counterpoint. The trombone was also old-fashioned. In the 16th century and the early decades of the 17th it played in ensemble, usually with cornetts. It also participated in performances of vocal polyphony, often playing colla voce. In the early 17th century some music for solo trombone was written, but gradually it had fallen out of grace. Around 1700 Vienna was one of the very few places where it was still in use. This tradition lasted until the end of the 18th century when Mozart worked in Vienna. In contrast, the chalumeau and the clarinet were modern instruments. The latter was to become one of the most popular instruments in the classical period, whereas the chalumeau was fashionable in the first half of the 18th century, not only in Vienna, but also elsewhere. The German composer Christoph Graupner wrote various pieces with parts for one or more chalumeaus, and in Venice the instrument was embraced by Vivaldi.

These discs have a somewhat wider scope than just the trombone. The disc of the Capricornus Ensemble includes pieces with chalumeau and an aria with an obbligato part for the cello. In the programme of the Ensemble La Fontaine we find some pieces with an obbligato part for the bassoon. However, in both recordings the trombone is the main interest, and the music recorded here shows that the trombone parts were written for highly-skilled players.

These players were largely from just one family. Around the middle of the 17th century the Viennese court had a brilliant trombonist in its ranks: Johann Friedrich Hellweg. At the end of his life he handed over his art to Leopold Christian who was the first of a dynasty of trombonists which would dominate trombone-playing at the court for about a century. They were much admired and considered the greatest virtuosos of their time.

Obviously the presence of such virtuosos inspired composers to write parts for their instrument. However, the frequent inclusion of trombone parts in vocal music was also due to a tradition which was specific for imperial Vienna. In his liner-notes to the Ramée recording Howard Weiner mentions the habit of performing so-called sepolcri during Holy Week. "Usually based on the Passion or on an Old Testament story thought to presage the Passion, the Italian-language sepolcri were given with staging, scenery, and costumes. The main element of the secenery was a replica of the Most Holy Sepulchre of Christ, hence the designation sepolcro". This tradition lasted until 1705 when it was replaced by an oratorio or comparable pieces called azione sacra or rappresentazione sacra. These were performed - unstaged - in front of representations of the Holy Sepulchre. It was customary that sepolcri included at least one aria with an obbligato trombone part, and this tradition then continued in the oratorios. With the performance of oratorios referring to Christ's Passion the court in Vienna was in line with what was common practice in Italy, for instance in Rome, where oratorios were performed during Lent.

If one listens to the music recorded on these two discs one gets the impression that the inclusion of trombone parts was mainly driven by tradition and the presence of trombone virtuosos rather than the content of a specific aria. That said, the trombones certainly create a specific flavour, and the instrument's features are effectively explored by the composers. The same goes for the chalumeau and the bassoon. One of the nice aspects of both discs is the inclusion of little-known music, sometimes by almost forgotten composers.

Two composers figure prominently in both programmes: Johann Joseph Fux and Antonio Caldara. The former was one of the very few non-Italians who played a leading role in musical life at the court. The fact that he was a representative of classical counterpoint surely must have been an important reason for his appointment, first as court composer in 1698, then as vice-Kapellmeister in 1711/12 and as Kapellmeister in 1715. He has become mainly known for his treatise Gradus ad Parnassum. As has happened to so many theorists his own compositions have been neglected for a long time. Right now we see a change as since about ten years several recordings of his music have been released. Both discs include three of his sonatas, two of them appear on both discs which can be explained from the fact that they include an obbligato part for the trombone. Such sonatas were used during the liturgy, replacing the Graduale.

Fux was also a prolific composer of vocal music, especially for liturgical use, but also operas and oratorios. A specimen of liturgical music is the setting of Alma redemptoris mater (I). Il fonte della salute (1716) (I) is an oratorio for Passiontide, and includes the wonderful aria 'Vedi che il Redentor': "See how the Redeemer willingly sheds the water of life from his wounded breast to give you life". The scoring is for soprano, chalumeau, trombone and violone (the latter part is played here at the cello). Another Passion oratorio is Jesu Christo nell'orto (1718) (II); in the aria 'Dal limbo già ti chiama' an angel comforts Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.

The second composer is Antonio Caldara. He worked in various places in Italy but from an early time he had the ambition to enter the service of the imperial court in Vienna. His first contacts with a member of the Habsburg dynasty was in Barcelona where Archduke Charles III married Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Later Caldara went to Milan in an attempt to meet Charles again, who was on his way to Frankfurt to be crowned emperor as successor of his brother Joseph I. Several attempts to be appointed at the court failed, but in 1716 he succeeded. There can be little doubt that the then emperor Charles VI had a strong liking for Caldara's music. His production of vocal music, especially oratorios and operas, is astonishing. Very little of his output has been explored as yet. The arias from his oratorios on these two discs suggests that this is long overdue.

One of his best-known oratorios is Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo (1713) (I); it was recorded by René Jacobs (Harmonia mundi, 1995). 'Pompe inutili' is an aria with an obbligato part for the cello which takes a dramatic role in the B section. Another Passion oratorio is Morte e sepoltura di Christo (1724) (II). 'Languire, morire', preceded by a recitative, is an aria of Joseph of Arimathea holding Jesus' body in his arms. 'Dio qual sia' is an aria from the oratorio Naboth (1729) (I); here the title character prays to God for help: "God, whether the judgment is guilty or proves my innocence, you know it". The parts of soprano and trombone both include chromaticism. 'Così a fiume' is an aria from the oratorio Gioaz (1726) (II) in which trombone and bassoon have obbligato parts in the A section whereas the soloist is accompanied by violins in the B section.

Both discs include music by lesser-known or even unknown composers. Marc'Antonio Ziani was from Venice and was appointed vice-Kapellmeister in 1700. In 1712 he became Kapellmeister; when he died he was succeeded by Fux. He composed a large number of operas and various sepolcri and oratorios. Il mistico Giobbe (1704) (I) is ranked among the sepolcri; in the aria 'Quel sembiante così bello' soprano and trombone partly imitate each other. The antiphon Alma redemptoris mater (1707) (II) is scored for alto, two trombones, bassoon and bc, which are used in various combinations in the different sections of this piece. The closing line - "peccatorum miserere" - is singled out through the use of chromaticism.

Pietro Casati was an alto who sang in the Hofkapelle from 1717 until his death in 1745. His setting of Salve Regina is for alto, two trombones and bc, and is strongly reminiscent of Ziani's Alma redemptoris mater. An almost exact contemporary of his was Giuseppe Porsile who first came into contact with the Habsburgers in Barcelona where he acted as singing master of Charles' wife Elisabeth Christine. He followed Charles to Vienna, and in 1720 he became court composer. Il Trionfo di Giuditta is about the well-known story of Judith, saving Betulia when it is besieged by the Assyrians. Other compositions on this subject are Vivaldi's oratorio Juditha triumphans and Mozart's Betulia liberata. 'La sovrana eterna mente' - preceded by a short recitative - is an aria of Achior, ally of the Assyrians, in which he acknowledges Judith's God as the only true God.

Francesco Bartolomeo Conti was born in Florence, but spent the largest part of his life in Vienna, where he worked at the imperial court. In 1708 he was appointed first theorbo player, in 1713 he became also court composer. After these appointments he was one of the highest paid musicians in Vienna. Il David perseguitato da Saul (1723) (II) is not the same piece as his oratorio David which he composed a year later and has been recorded by Alan Curtis. In the aria 'Fuggo d'una in altra selva' David compares himself with a rabbit: "I flee from one wood to another, just as the rabbit conceals itself from the eagle's talons". This is vividly illustrated in the music. Ignazio Maria is his son and was also a theorbo player, but he never held an official position. The aria 'Se potesse la mia mente' is from his oratorio La destruzione d'Hai (1728) (II) and is scored for alto, bassoon, two violins and bc. It is the bassoon which plays the leading role alongside the alto; the violins play pizzicato throughout the aria.

The last composer in the programme of the Ensemble La Fontaine is Frantisek Ignac Tuma who was a pupil of, among others, Fux. In 1741 he became Kapellmeister of the private musical establishment of Elisabeth Christine, widow of Charles VI who had died in 1740. It was a relatively small chapel but included two trombonists and a bassoonist. This explains the scoring of the sonata played here for two violins and two trombones which dates from 1742. With Tuma, who died in 1774, the programme builds a bridge to the classical era.

These two discs are complementary and both present highly interesting programmes of music of high quality. The instrumental scoring makes them especially rewarding, and the extracts of oratorios which are mostly unknown makes them even more attractive. Fortunately the performances are also first class, both vocally and instrumentally. Lydia Teuscher could have used a little less vibrato here and there, but that is the only issue in regard to the performances. Both she and Alex Potter have the perfect voices for this kind of repertoire. The players of trombones, chalumeau and bassoon are all fine artists who play their sometimes demanding parts with impressive ease. I can only strongly recommend these discs and express the hope that we might see the days that the oratorios of the composers represented here will be available on disc in their entirety.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Alex Potter
Capricornus Ensemble Stuttgart
Ensemble La Fontaine

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