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Bernhard Joachim HAGEN (1720 - 1787): "Sonatas for Lute & Strings"

John Schneiderman, lute; Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin; William Skeen, cello

rec: [n.d.], Pebble Beach, Ca., Baker Estate
Dorian - DSL-90907 (© 2009) (72'38")

Sonata in C; Sonata in E flat; Sonata in F; Sonata in A 'Pastorella'; Sonata in a minor; Sonata in B flat

The life and oeuvre of Bernhard Joachim Hagen is indicative of the state of the lute in Germany from the mid-18th century onwards. It was still popular among amateurs: the catalogues of the music publisher Breitkopf of the 1760's contain a large number of compositions for or with lute. But most professional players also played other instruments, since lute players were not so much in demand in court orchestras anymore. Bernhard Joachim Hagen is just one example.

Not that much is known about Hagen. The main data come from an entry in the Historisch-biographisches Lexicon der Tonkünstler, published in 1790-92 by the German scholar Ernst Ludwig Gerber. Thanks to him the Christian names of Hagen are mostly given in the wrong order: Joachim Bernhard. But his Sonatina per il Liuto per B.J. Hagen shows that his proper name was Bernhard Joachim. He learned to play the lute and the violin at an early age, and may have been a pupil of his older brother Peter Albrecht, who had been a pupil of Geminiani in London and was an organist in Rotterdam in the Netherlands from 1731 until his death in 1777.

Bernhard Joachim's first position was at the court of Bayreuth where he was appointed, not as a lutenist, but as a violinist. Even so, this was one of the few courts where the lute was still in demand. That was mainly due to Margravine Wilhelmine, the younger sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia, who married Frederick who was to become Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth in 1735. Wilhelmine played the harpsichord and developed a passion for the lute. When she heard Silvius Leopold Weiss play in 1728 it made a great impression on her. At the time very little was going on when she arrived in Bayreuth. She immediately appointed architects to build a palace, and in 1748 a new opera house was opened which was one of the largest in Europe.

She also attracted musicians in order to build a court orchestra. By 1738 the orchestra consisted of 17 musicians, among them the brothers Jakob Friedrich and Johann Stephan Kleinknecht, both flautists, the violinist Johann Daniel Lenthardt and the lutist Adam Falckenhagen. The Kapellmeister was Johann Pfeiffer, who was appointed in 1734. In 1737 Hagen joined the court orchestra as violinist. In this capacity he must have been quite skilled, as he regularly acted as a substitute for Pfeiffer. It seems he never acted as lutenist at the court: when Falckenhagen died in 1754 he was not succeeded by Hagen, but by Paul Charles Durant about whom hardly anything is known.

In 1758 Wilhelmine died at the age of 49. The opera house was sold, and the musical activities were greatly diminished. The orchestra wasn't disbanded, though: when Pfeiffer died in 1761 Jakob Friedrich Kleinknecht succeeded him as Kapellmeister. But when in 1763 the Margrave died without an heir the House of Brandenburg-Bayreuth merged with the House of Brandenburg-Ansbach. The court moved to Ansbach in 1769, and here Hagen remained active as violinist until his death.

Hagen's whole oeuvre centres around the lute, and is preserved in one source, a collection of manuscripts which is now in the Augsburg State Library. They comprise twelve lute sonatas, two lute concertos, a duo for two lutes, a duo for lute and violin, a number of arrangements for the lute of pieces by other composers, and the six trios recorded here. They are all in three movements, in the order fast - slow - fast. The two treble parts are more or less independent. Motifs in one are often imitated in the other. There are also passages in which the treble instruments play in parallel motion. The cello delivers the harmonic support. The bass part of the Sonata in B flat is missing, and has been reconstructed by William Skeen.

These trios are examples of the galant style, and are written for entertainment. That doesn't mean they are mere easy-listening. They are very well written, and the two melody parts reflect the skills of Hagen on both instruments. Notable is the fact that the violin is played with a mute, probably indicated by the composer in order to achieve a satisfying balance between the two treble instruments. The Sonata in A, with the title 'Pastorella', is the most remarkable. Here the violin is required to play scordatura, which means that it is played in a different tuning. In the second movement the lute plays glissandi, a technique not unknown to the baroque era, but regularly used only since the 19th century.

Bernhard Joachim Hagen may not be the most famous composer of music for lute in music history but he certainly deserves the attention given by John Schneiderman, Elizabeth Blumenstock and William Skeen. They deliver very fine performances, technically immaculate, with excellent ensemble. Several movements give the lutenist opportunities to play a cadenza, and John Schneiderman uses them well. The recording has just the right intimacy which gives the listener the impression of being very close to the players, and sharing their obvious enjoyment of the music. The booklet contains extended information about the composer and the music, which I have gratefully used for this review. (To my astonishment Hagen doesn't have an entry in New Grove (edition 2001), which is a serious omission.)

This is first-rate chamber music, eloquently performed by three fine musicians. Not only lute aficionados shouldn't miss this release.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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John Schneiderman

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