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Palschau/Schulz: "Concertos and Solo Works for Harpsichord"

Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord
Concerto Copenhagena
Dir: Lars Ulrik Mortensen
rec: March 2 - 4, 2007, Copenhagen, Garnisons Kirke
Dacapo - 8.226040 (© 2007) (67'08")

Johann Gottfried Wilhelm PALSCHAU (c1741 – 1815): Concerto for harpsichord and strings No. 1 in Ca; Concerto for harpsichord and strings No. 2 in Da; Johann Abraham Peter SCHULZ (1747 – 1800): Six diverses pièces pour le Clavecin ou le Piano Forte, Op. 1 (Preludio. Allegro comodo; Andante sostenuto; Allegro maestoso; Andante; Allegretto; Larghetto con variazioni)

Very few will be able to mention any Danish composers from the time before Niels Wilhelm Gade, who was one of the most important pupils of Felix Mendelssohn. The names of the composers on this disc don't sound very Danish, and both of them were of German origin. But they spent a considerable time of their lives in Denmark. In fact, they were only two of many German-born composers who worked for some time in Denmark in the 17th and 18th centuries. Until well into the 19th century Scandinavia has been under strong influence of German culture. Religion also played a part in it: both northern Germany and the Scandinavian countries were predominantly Lutheran.

The best-known of the two composers on this disc is Johann Abraham Peter Schulz. Today he is mainly known for his songs, and one of them, Der Mond ist aufgegangen, is still extremely popular in Germany and frequently sung by amateur choirs. His heroes were Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Philipp Kirnberger. It is probably through Kirnberger that he became acquainted with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was Kirnberger's teacher. This is reflected by the first of the keyboard pieces recorded here, the Preludio, which stylistically is very close to the preludes from Bach's Wohltemperirtes Clavier. The other pieces are more modern: the second, Andante sostenuto, is a divertimento-like piece, whereas the third (Allegro maestoso), fifth (Allegretto) and sixth (Larghetto con variazioni) are connected to the style of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In particular the sudden musical ideas and the unexpected pauses in the latter work are very characteristic of Carl Philipp Emanuel's style. The most modern piece is the fourth (Andante), which - as Knut Ketting writes in the booklet - is very close to Mozart. He adds that it is best suited for the fortepiano, which one can only agree with. Why then is it played here on the harpsichord, especially as it contains crescendo markings which can't be realised on the harpsichord? Even so this sequence of pieces - some of which have been recorded before, among others by Christopher Hogwood - gives a very good idea about Schulz' qualities as a composer. It shows he was more than just the composer of - rather simple - solo songs. He had a pretty good reputation, had connections with some of the best composers of his time and Kirnberger asked him to assist him in writing his treatise on harmony. He was an advocate of modern music, promoting Gluck, Piccinni and Sacchini. During his time in Denmark he wrote an influential essay on music education, reflecting his attachment to the ideas of the Enlightenment.

Johann Gottfried Wilhelm Palschau is much lesser known, and there is much less information about him. It is not known for sure where he was born, but it is unlikely that it was Copenhagen, as New Grove says, as his father only arrived in Copenhagen in 1747, where he worked as violinist in the court orchestra. Johann Gottfried Wilhelm seems to have been a child prodigy at the keyboard, and at an early age father and son travelled through Europe to exploit the boy's talent. In the 1750s and 1760s public performances in London and several German cities are documented. In 1768 he seems to have returned to Copenhagen, as a public performance there was announced. In the 1770s he went to Riga to study with Johann Gottfried Müthel, and then went to St Petersburg where he became an important figure in musical life. There he died in 1813 or 1815.

His two harpsichord concertos recorded here both date from 1771, and therefore a performance on the harpsichord is definitely right. These two compositions show great stylistic affinity with the style of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Typical is the hyper-sensitive, sometimes nervous solo part, the sudden interventions of the orchestra and the seemingly irregular shaping of these concertos. The second concerto is not only the longest, but also the most virtuosic. Here we find passages where the strings are reduced to playing pizzicato. In particular the adagio of the second concerto is very expressive, and a perfect example of the Empfindsamkeit.

Lars Ulrik Mortensen and Concerto Copenhagen give splendid performances of these two concertos. I don't know how much Palschau has written down in his score, and the booklet doesn't tell either. There are lots of crescendos and diminuendos, much in the style of the Mannheim School. Whether or not the score contains dynamic markings this is definitely the way to play the orchestral part. Lars Ulrik Mortensen is excellent in the solo part, and several movements end with sometimes pretty virtuosic cadenzas. Were they written down by Palschau or are they of Mortensen's own making? Anyway, they sound very good and are also highly appropriate in these concertos.

Likewise the solo pieces by Schulz are given very good performances by Mortensen, the choice of the harpsichord in the fourth notwithstanding. The many twists and turns in the pieces which reflect the style of the Empfindsamkeit are well realised.

There are still many pieces of music which are hidden under the dust of history. Some people believe they should be left there. But history isn't always a fair judge. The two concertos by Palschau fully deserve to be performed and recorded. They are an important and exciting addition to the repertoire for keyboard and orchestra.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

Relevant links:

Concerto Copenhagen

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