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Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723 - 1787): Sonatas for viola da gamba

[I] "Sonatas from the Maltzan Collection"
Krzysztof Firlus, viola da gamba; Tomasz Pokrzywinski, celloa; Anna Firlus, harpsichordb, fortepianoc
rec: Oct & Nov 2018, Katowice, headquarter of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Dux - 1564 (© 2019) (60'44")
Liner-notes: E/PL
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] "A Sentimental Journey - Sonatas for viola da gamba and bass"
Paolo Pandolfo, viola da gamba; Amélie Chemin, viola da gambaa, cellob; Thomas Boysen, lutec; Andrea Buccarella, harpsichordd, fortepianoe
rec: March 2020, Basel, Adullam Kapelle
Glossa - GCD 920418 (© 2021) (77'27")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata in D (A2:50) [Ia; IIbe]; Sonata in D (A2:75) [Ib; IIbce]; Sonata in e minor (A2:7/WKO 150) [IIad]; Sonata in G (A2:68A) [Ib]; Sonata in G (A2:72) [Ia; IIbe]; Sonata in g minor (A2:56A) [Ic; IIbce]; Sonata in A (A2:53) [IIbe]; Sonata in a minor (A2:57A) [Ic; IIad]; Carl Friedrich ABEL / Paolo PANDOLFO: Sonata in D (A2:67) (andantino) & Variations [IIbce]

In the course of the 18th century, the viola da gamba, an instrument that had been held in high esteem for many centuries, was gradually overshadowed by the 'modern' cello. Whereas the gamba had become already obsolete in Italy in the 17th century, it was still frequently played in France, England and Germany. However, after the mid-18th century only a few real virtuosos on the gamba were still active and playing a major role at the music scene. Both were German: Ludwig Christian Hesse and Carl Friedrich Abel. Hesse was for many years in the service of Frederick the Great and later a member of the private chapel of Frederick William II. Abel, whose father and grandfather were also renowned gambists, started his career in Germany, as a member of the famous Dresden court orchestra. For reasons that are not exactly known, he moved to England in 1758/59. There he renewed his acquaintance with the youngest of the Bach sons, Johann Christian, whom he undoubtedly had already met during the early stages of his career. Together they organized the so-called Bach-Abel concerts. There can be little doubt that Abel played his own music during such concerts.

It is known that he played in more than 400 public concerts, which attests to his important role at the music scene. Initially he also played the cello and the harpsichord, but as he realised that he had to deal with stiff competition in these capacities, he decided to focus on his own instrument, the viola da gamba, on which he had to fear no competition at all. Given his frequent performances, Peter Holman, in his liner-notes to the Glossa disc, expresses surprise that so little music that he may have played himself, has been preserved. It needs to be said that he seems to refer only to sonatas for viola da gamba and basso continuo, which are the subject of the two discs under review here. It seems likely that Abel often improvised, and the pieces for unaccompanied viola da gamba, which are included in the so-called Drexel manuscript (recorded complete by Petr Wagner), may well be the result of this part of his playing, and give us some insight into his skills in this department.

As far as the sonatas are concerned, Holman mentions that in his book of 2010 (Life after Death: The Viola da Gamba in Britain from Purcell to Dolmetsch), he could only discuss 39 sonatas by Abel. Six of these were published in 1772, thirty have been preserved in manuscript in the British Library. All these pieces were written for pupils, and this means that only three were written for Abel's own use. However, since then the number of sonatas has been greatly extended thanks to the discovery of three manuscripts. The first is known as the Kulukundis collection, whose name is derived from the person who purchased it in London in 1994; it is now preserved at the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig. It includes ten sonatas for viola da gamba and basso continuo, seven of which in Abel's own handwriting, and four duets for viola da gamba and cello. The latter document the coexistence of the two instruments in England (and Abel was not the only one who played both).

The second source was discovered in 2014 in the University Library of Poznan in Poland. It was once owned by Count Joachim Carl, Graf von Maltzan (1733-1813), and is hence known as the Maltzan Collection. It includes 25 sonatas and four duets, seven of them in autograph; 22 of these pieces were previously unknown. Maltzan, who was an amateur gambist, may have acquired these pieces during his stay in London as a Prussian diplomat between 1766 and 1782. These sonatas may give us some idea of what Abel used to play in concerts, as - according to Holman - they are technically more advanced than most other pieces from his pen that have been preserved.

The third source is known as the Ledenburg Collection, called after Ledenburg Castle, east of Osnabrück, where it was originally kept. Today it is preserved at the Archives of the Land of Lower-Saxony. This collection has become famous because it included the twelve fantasias for unaccompanied viola da gamba by Georg Philipp Telemann that were considered to be lost. These have been recorded several times recently. The collection also includes three sonatas by Abel, and as they are more old-fashioned in style than most of Abel's works, they may have been written before his departure to England.

Among the two recordings reviewed here, the Dux disc is entirely devoted to the Maltzan Collection. Krzysztof Firlus selected six sonatas which are all in three movements in the common order of fast - slow - fast. The core of Paolo Pandolfo's programme is the same collection; it is a bit of a shame that all but one of the sonatas that Firlus has recorded, also appear in his programme. The only exception is the Sonata in G (A2:68A). The only two sonatas in Pandolfo's recording that are not performed by Firlus, are those taken from the Ledenburg Collection and from a manuscript in Berlin, one of the three sonatas Abel may have written for his own use (those Holman referred to, as mentioned above). Both are notable for the fact that the order of movements reflects the preference in Berlin in the mid-18th century: slow, fast, faster.

Given that the two programmes are largely identical, it is only logical to compare the performances. Pandolfo is a widely known performer, whereas Firlus may be a relatively new name to some. However, there can be little doubt that both Firlus and Pandolfo are highly skilled players of their instrument. Even so, the differences are notable.

First I would mention the recording. The miking in Firlus's recording has been too close for comfort; the sound is blowing into your face. Sometimes one would like to hear every detail, but there are also things one would not like to hear. In particular the highest notes do sound rather unpleasant in Firlus's recording, although that may also be due to his playing. Anyway, I very much prefer the space in Pandolfo's recording, which is just right. There the balance between the viola da gamba and the basso continuo is also satisfying, whereas in Firlus's recording the gamba is too dominant. That is also due to the line-up of the basso continuo section. Firlus confines himself here to just one instrument: a cello, a harpsichord or a fortepiano. Pandolfo opted for more variety: both a second viola da gamba and a cello are used, plus a keyboard instrument (harpsichord or fortepiano) and a lute, which play in different combinations. The participation of a lute may raise questions, but Holman states that this instrument enjoyed a revival in late 18th-century England. As far as these different options are concerned, there is no such thing as 'right' or 'wrong'. I am less enthusiastic about the change of the line-up in the basso continuo group within single sonatas.

If one compares the timing of the various movements, it is striking that they are quite different. In Pandolfo's performance, the fast movements are mostly faster and the slow movements slower than in Firlus's performances. As a result Pandolfo's interpretations are more dramatic and include more tension. Abel was particularly famous for his playing of adagios, and Holman connects this to the then fashionable ideal of sensibility, which is expressed in the title of Pandolfo's recording. This aspect comes more to the fore in his recording than in that by Firlus. He also shows a better sense of rhythm, which is emphasized by a stronger differentiation between good and bad notes.

I certainly have enjoyed both recordings, but a direct comparison makes me prefer Pandolfo, whose recording is more satisfying and convincing from the angle of interpretation and recording. It is also nice that he opens and closes his programme with a theme by Abel to which he then adds variations of his own. This way he pays tribute to Abel's own improvisational skills.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Andrea Buccarella
Thomas Boysen
Amélie Chemin
Krzysztof Firlus
Paolo Pandolfo

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