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Johannes SCHENCK (1660 - c1720): "Il Giardino Armonico – 12 Trio Sonatas Opus III"

La Suave Melodia
Dir: Pieter Dirksen

rec: September 12 - 14, 2005, Renswoude (Neth), NH Kerk
Et'cetera - KTC 1356 (© 2007) (79'03")

Sonata I in D; Sonata II in B flat; Sonata III in g minor; Sonata IV in d minor; Sonata V in c minor; Sonata VI in E; Sonata VII in f; Sonata VIII in c; Sonata IX in A; Sonata X in b minor; Sonata XI in a minor; Sonata XII in d minor

Rachael Beesley, violin; Cassandra Luckhardt, viola da gamba; Regina Albanez, theorbo; Pieter Dirksen harpsichord, organ; with Franc Polman, violin

Johannes Schenck is one of those composers whom we don't know very much about. Sometimes he is considered German, but he is also ranked as one of the most important Dutch composers of the 17th century. He was born in Amsterdam from German parents, and was baptised in the Reformed Church. This gives every reason to consider him a Dutch composer. We don't know who was his first music teacher; it is quite possible, though, that it was Carolus Hacquart who taught him the viola da gamba. Hacquart, born in Brughes in the Southern Netherlands, left his hometown for Amsterdam in the early 1670s. Schenck developed into a true virtuoso on the viola da gamba. According to a contemporary "no one has ever played this instrument more delicately than he". He soon established himself as an important member of the cultural élite of Amsterdam, and it seems the financial support of this élite gave him the opportunity to publish a remarkable number of collections of music: he was by far the most widely published Dutch composer of the 17th century.

In 1697 he was appointed Kammermusikus at the court of Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm in Düsseldorf. The Elector aimed at modelling his court after Versailles, and attracted many important musicians. Among them were Handel, the violin virtuoso Veracini and Germany's greatest lute player, Silvius Leopold Weiss. No less a composer than Corelli devoted his Concerti grossi opus 6 to Johann Wilhelm. It is not quite known how long Schenck stayed at the service of the Elector Palatine, but not longer than 1716, when Johann Wilhelm died. The quality of his court chapel can be deduced from the fact that when after the Elector's death the court moved to Mannheim, the best of his musicians were the core of what became Europe's best orchestra and gave its name to the Mannheim School.

Most collections of Schenck's compositions consist of pieces for his own instrument, the viola da gamba. In these he mixed Italian and French elements. But he also published a series of 12 trio sonatas for two violins, viola da gamba and bc. This opus 3, entitled Il Giardino Armonico, was thought to be lost: it was assumed the only copy left had been destroyed in World War II. But Pieter Dirksen, the director of the ensemble La Suave Melodia, has been able to locate this copy only recently, and this has resulted in this recording. These trio sonatas are strongly influenced by the trio sonatas of Corelli, whom Schenck must have met in Düsseldorf. Even so they bear his own stamp.

The features of the 12 sonatas are explained extensively in the booklet by Pieter Dirksen. The basic model of these sonatas may be the sonata da chiesawith its common four movements, but in several sonatas there are additional movements, and sometimes fast movements are interrupted by slow passages. Three of the sonatas (Nos 3, 8 and 12) contain many more movements, and some of these are written for one instrument. The Sonata III contains two passages for the first and the second violin respectively, both consisting of fast and slow sections, and in the two other sonatas the viola da gamba also gets a solo role. The Sonata VIII is a piece of programmatic music: here a Battaglia is depicted, which includes a kind of lamento (a short solo for the second violin) and closes with a joyful allegro, which can be interpreted as a song of victory.

"These twelve sonatas demonstrate an astonishing variety of affects through which the composer displays a noteworthy sensitivity for the different keys, lending each sonata its own particular character", Pieter Dirksen writes in the booklet. This observation is certainly reflected in the performance of these sonatas. The harmonic peculiarities come out clearly, thanks to the perfect intonation. The contrasts between the movements are also worked out well, but fortunately these are not exaggerated: this is no Italian music after all. I like the way the basso continuo part is realised: the violinists are given strong rhythmic support, and there is a nice variety of scoring: harpsichord or organ with theorbo and viola da gamba, and in some sections only the latter two. Elsewhere I complained about the modern fashion of using the theorbo as percussion instrument. This ensemble stays away from it: the theorbo is only used that way in the Sonata VIII, but as it illustrates a battle, that makes sense.

These are colourful, energetic and technically immaculate performances of these trio sonatas, which are very important additions to the repertoire. I strongly recommend this disc, which I am sure shall give you as much pleasure as it has given me.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

Relevant links:

La Suave Melodia

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