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Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723 - 1787): Music for viola da gamba & for other instruments

[I] "Ledenburg - Viola da Gamba Sonatas & Trios"
Thomas Fritzsch, viola da gamba; Eva Salonen, violin; Katharina Holzhey, cello; Michael Schönheit, fortepiano
rec: Jan 19 - 22, 2016, Kulturhistorisches Museum Schloß Merseburg, Hofstube
Coviello Classics - COV 91608 (© 2016) (69'43")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata for viola da gamba and bc in G (WKO 152 / A2,9); Sonata I for viola da gamba and bc in G (A2,52); Sonata II for viola da gamba and bc in A (A2,53); Sonata III for viola da gamba and bc in B flat (A2,54); Sonata à 3 for viola da gamba, violin and bass in B flat (WKO 110d / A5,5A); Trio for violin, viola da gamba and cello in C (A5,3A); Trio for violin, viola da gamba and bass in G (A5,4A)

[II] "The Drexel Manuscript"
Petr Wagner, viola da gamba
rec: Nov 21 - 23, 2014, Prague, [Baroque Assembly Hall of Tyrsuv dum]
Accent - ACC 24305 (© 2016) (76'44")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet
The Drexel Manuscript (sel.)

[in order of appearance]
Allegro; [Adagio]; Tempo di Menuet; Adagio; Vivace; Andante; [Allegro]; [Tempo di Menuet]; [Preludio]; [Arpeggio scordato]; [Allegro]; Fuga; [Aria]; Allegro; [Tempo di Menuet]; [Cadenza]; Tempo di Menuet; Tempo di Menuet; [Aria]; [Aria con Variazioni]; [Cadenza]; [Arpeggio]; [Aria]; Allegro; [Allegro]; Adagio; Tempo di Menuet; Allegretto; Allegro
N.B. The disc omits the keys and the catalogue numbers

[III] Carl Friedrich ABEL, Johann Adolf HASSE: "Composed to the soul - Concerti, Quartetti, Arie"
Dorothee Mields, sopranoa
Hamburger Ratsmusik
Dir: Simone Eckert
rec: Jan 19 - 22, 2014, Eckernförde, St. Nikolai
CPO - 777 911-2 (© 2015) (52'41")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Abel

Carl Friedrich ABEL: Concerto for keyboard, 2 violins and bc in D, op. 11,4 (WKO 56)c; Frena le belle lagrime, aria for soprano, viola da gamba, strings and bcab; Quartet for viola da gamba, violin, viola and cello in B flat, op. 8,2 (WKO 62), arr anon; Quartet for viola da gamba, violin, viola and cello in A, op. 8,5 (WKO 65), arr anon; Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): La Didone abbandonata, opera (1742) (L'Augelletto in lacci stretto, aria for soprano, viola da gamba, strings and bc (version Paris, 1753))ab

Sources: Carl Friedrich Abel, [1] Six Quartettos, op. 8, 1769; [2] Six Concerts pour le Clavecin ou Piano Forte avec l'accompagnement de Deux Violons et Violoncelle, op. 11, n.d. [1774]

Christoph Heidemann, Gabriele Steinfeld, violin; Bettina Ihrig, viola; Simone Eckert, viola da gamba (solob); Dorothee Palm, cello; Barbara Hofmann, violone; Michael Fuerst, harpsichord (soloc)

Carl Friedrich Abel is a remarkable figure in music history. He was born into a family of viola da gamba players: his grandfather Clamor Heinrich had worked in Hanover and other places, whereas his father was gambist and cellist at the court in Cöthen from 1714 until his death in 1737. He was educated on both instruments by his father and after the latter's death he settled in Leipzig; whether he ever was a formal student of Johann Sebastian Bach is not documented. For about ten years - from the mid-1740s to 1755/56 - he was a member of the famous court orchestra in Dresden, which was then under the direction of Johann Adolf Hasse. In the winter of 1758/59 he settled in London where he became close friends with the youngest Bach son, Johann Christian. Together they organised the so-called Bach-Abel concerts where many of the best virtuosos of the time from across Europe showed their skills. Abel often performed here as a soloist on the viola da gamba; on the basis of newspaper advertisements we have to conclude that he played as such in more than 60 concerts.

Abel was one of the greatest viola da gamba virtuosos in a time that this instrument was in decline. Very few composers wrote music for the viola da gamba. However, among amateurs it was still played and Abel's presence in London may have resulted in a kind of revival. Several of his friends played the gamba, such as the painter Thomas Gainsborough and the novelist Laurence Sterne. It seems likely that Abel wrote his sonatas for viola da gamba and bc for amateurs like them.

The three discs to be reviewed here shed light on different sides of Abel as a composer and as a player. The German gambist Thomas Fritzsch has recorded several pieces which were unknown until recently. 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 by Telemann which were considered to be lost and which Fritzsch recently also recorded (a review will follow in due course). It also includes the three sonatas for viola da gamba and bc which are the core of the present disc. It seems likely that Eleonore von Grothaus (daughter of Ernst von Grothaus and Anna Friederike, born Baroness von Oldeshausem) who in 1759 married Baron Georg Hermann Heinrich von Münster was a player of the viola da gamba. The three sonatas are no autographs but copies and because of that it is impossible to establish when exactly they were written. Fritzsch sees reasons to believe that they date from before Abel's departure to England, such as the canonic or semi-canonic beginnings to the movement halves, the uniform key for all three movements and the order of the movements: slow - fast - fast which was common in Berlin but not in England. "On the other hand, the idiosynctratic, often surprising harmony surpasses in boldness what is already to be encountered in the comparable Prussian Sonatas (A2:7-8), tending - like the bold treatment of dissonance characteristic of the 'sensitive' style - to anticipate Abel's late compositions." These sonatas are clearly written for amateurs as they omit virtuosity: there is no double stopping and only a part of the gamba's tessitura is explored.

Also in the Ledenburg collection are the two trios for violin, viola da gamba and bass; the latter is noted as violoncello or basso. These are anonymous but can be attributed to Abel on stylistic grounds. The Sonata à 3 in B flat which has been preserved in the manuscript with only the gamba part also comes without the name of the composer. However, it is identical with the fourth sonata from a collection of six sonatas for transverse flute, violin and bc by Abel which is preserved in the library of Uppsala University. The gamba part is a transposition of the flute part. This allowed the recording of this piece here. One of the people in Abel's circle in London was Lady Elizabeth Herbert (née Spencer), Countess of Pembroke and Montgomery (1737-1831). For her Abel also composed a number of sonatas which are part of the so-called Pembroke Collection. In 2014 Thomas Fritzsch recorded several pieces from the "2nd Pembroke Collection" and here he plays a piece from the first collection, the Sonata in G (WKPO 152).

Fritzsch has done us a great favour by recording these unknown pieces by Abel. He and his colleagues have found exactly the right approach. They give full swing to these sonatas and that makes for almost 70 minutes of high-quality entertainment and that is exactly what this repertoire is about. The only item is the use of a Broadwood fortepiano of 1805; such an instrument is too modern and an English action is not the most appropriate for music which seems to have been written for German Liebhaber. A Silbermann would have been a more logical choice.

In his recording Petr Wagner turns to Abel the virtuoso and the composer of virtuosic music, which mostly may have been found its origin in his improvisations. The author of his obituary wrote: "Those were the happy judges who heard him play by the fire-side, when he took his flight into fine airs, double stops and arpeggios, and put his twelve o'clock light and shade into every note!" Air (aria) and arpeggio are some of the titles given by performers to some pieces which have been preserved without a title and are part of the so-called Drexel manuscript which Wagner recorded complete.

The manuscript is called after the American patron Joseph William Drexel (1833-1888) who was an avid music collector; his collection consisted of over 6,000 volumes of manuscripts and printed editions. It includes 27 pieces for viola da gamba solo which bear witness to Abel's own skills as a performer. Double stopping is frequently applied and the tessitura of the instrument is fully explored, for instance in the Fuga which in its texture reminds us of Johann Sebastian Bach's fugues for a single instrument, such as the sonatas and partitas for violin solo. Only three keys are used: 20 pieces are in D major, five in D minor and two in A major. One would expect Abel to have played such pieces in his public performances - for instance at the Bach-Abel concerts - as well. But according to Charles Burney he often preferred to play simple music in public: "I do not chuse to be always struggling with difficulties, and playing with all my might. I make my pieces difficult whenever I please, according to my disposition and that of my audience."

Petr Wagner delivers brilliant performances. His technicall skills are impressive and his command of his instrument is such that the technical requirements - although clearly notable - never overshadow the musical content. If you look for a complete recording of the Drexel manuscript this is the disc to go for.

The last disc focuses on a third aspect of Abel's creative powers: the writing of music for other instruments than his own, for instance string quartets. It is true that the two quartets which Hamburger Ratsmusik has recorded include a part for the viola da gamba, but these are from a set of six string quartets - in the conventional scoring - which were printed in 1769 as his op. 8 and were dedicated to the Queen of England. The Nos. 2 and 5 were adapted by an unknown hand - at least Simone Eckert doesn't name the copyist in her liner-notes: "The copyist transposed the first violin part an octave down and assigned it to the viola da gamba, whose virtuoso part, owing to the instrument's bright sound in the chosen register, is not drowned out but highlighted by the three accompanying strings". These two quartets remind me a little of Boccherini's chamber music for strings, especially the rhythms of the first movements. In the early string quartets of the 18th century the first violin usually plays the leading role, and often bears soloistic traces. That is the case in the earliest string quartets by Haydn and also in these quartets from Abel's pen.

Solo concertos are generally reckoned among the genre of orchestral music but for most of the 18th century there was no clear watershed between chamber and orchestral music. In particular in the third quarter of the century many concertos were scored for a solo instrument with only two violins and bass, omitting a part for the viola. This is a strong argument for a performance with one instrument per part. That is how Hamburger Ratsmusik performs Abel's Concerto in D, op. 11,4 which is part of a set of six concertos first published in 1771 by J.J. Hummel in Amsterdam and then in 1774 by Robert Bremner in London. It was common practice at the time to construct concertos with only two (fast) movements. The second movement was often a menuet; three of the six end that way but the fourth comprises two allegros.

It seems likely that these concertos were part of the repertoire of Johann Christian Bach and Abel which they played in domestic performances rather than during the Bach-Abel concerts. Abel composed the aria Frena le belle lagrime for a performance at the King's Theatre in 1767. It is one of the very few vocal pieces from his pen and was included in the pasticcio Sifari, which comprised music by Johann Christian Bach and Baldassare Galuppi. One may assume that Abel himself participated in the performance which explains the obbligato part for viola da gamba. The solo part was sung by the castrato Tommaso Guarducci. It is a true dialogue between the soprano and the viola da gamba. In this recording it is juxtaposed to an aria for the same scoring from Johann Adolf Hasse's opera La Didone abbandonata which was first performed in Dresden in 1742. The aria L'augelletto in lacci stretto was scored for soprano, transverse flute, strings and bc. But when this opera was performed in Paris, probably in 1753, the flute part was adapted for the viola da gamba, an instrument which was largely overshadowed by the cello in public concerts but was still in use among amateurs. But one famous professional viola da gamba player was still active: Jean-Baptiste Forqueray. Simone Eckert suggests that he could have been the initiator of this adaptation.

Most recordings of Abel's music focus on his output for the viola da gamba. But there is more to him than his own instrument; there is a large corpus of instrumental music which waits to be discovered, performed and recorded. Hamburger Ratsmusik's disc gives us some idea of what we may find there. The performances are outstanding and Dorothee Mields - although probably not a real opera singer - does a fine job in the two arias. The keyboard concertos op. 11 are available in a complete recording by La Stagione Frankfurt, with Sabine Bauer as the soloist (CPO, 2003). As far as I know the two quartets from the op. 8 are new to the catalogue, certainly in these versions.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Hamburger Ratsmusik
Petr Wagner

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