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Gottfried (Godfrey) FINGER (c1655/60 - 1730): Instrumental music

[I] "The complete music for viola da gamba solo"
Ensemble Tourbillon
Dir: Petr Wagner
rec: Jan 14 - 16, 2012, Prague, Baroque assembly hall of Tyrsuv dum
Accent - ACC 24267 (© 2012) (74'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

[Aria et variationes] in Ddh; [Balletti scordati] in Aceh; [Divisions] in g minorb; Prelude in e minor; Sonata in d minorbeh; Sonata I in Ddg; Sonata II in Dacdfh; Sonata III in Acg; Sonata IV in d minorafg; Sonata V in Acfh; Sonata VI in a minorg; Sonatina in Abeh

Petr Wagner, viola da gamba; Hana Fleková, viola da gamba [bc]a; Jan Cizmár, luteb, theorboc, guitard; Premysl Vacek, chitarronee, archlutef; Marcin Swiatkiewicz, harpsichordg, organh

[II] "Sonatae pro diversis instrumentis op. 1"
Echo du Danube
Dir: Christian Zincke
rec: March 1 - 4, 2011, Munich-Sendling, Himmelfahrtskirche
Accent - ACC 24264 (© 2011) (60'58")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Sonata I in d minor; Sonata II in F; Sonata III in A; Sonata IV in B flata; Sonata V in Fa; Sonata VI in Aa; Sonata VII in e minorab; Sonata VIII in g minorab; Sonata IX in Dab; Sonata X in Gbc; Sonata XI in E flatbc; Sonata XII in Cbc

Source: Sonatae XII pro diversis instrumentis, op.1, 1688

Martin Jopp, Lotta Suvantoa, Jörn Sebastian Kuhlmannb, violin; Eva Salonen, violac; Christian Zincke, viola da gamba; Lutz Gillmann, harpsichord, organ

Gottfried Finger is one of those composers whose name now and then turns up in a concert programme or a CD, but who is never the centre of attention. It is quite intriguing, though, to realise when and where he was born and died. The year of his birth is not known for sure; it is generally assumed it was around 1660. However, the first traces of his activities as a composer date from the early 1670s, and this suggests that he must have been born some years earlier. The place of his birth is known: Olmütz (now Olmouc in the Czech Republic); at his time the Prince-Bishop Karl II of Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn maintained one of the most renowned chapels in the German-speaking world in the nearby town of Kremsier. Among the members of this chapel were such famous virtuosos like the violinist Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber and the trumpeter Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky. The chapel had also close ties with composers who worked at the imperial court in Vienna, such as Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and Antonio Bertali. And then, Finger died in 1730 in Mannheim - one of the places where the style of the baroque would give way to a new aesthetic ideal, connected with terms like Empfindsamkeit and Sturm und Drang. In between he worked at several places, and his oeuvre shows the development of what we use to call the 'baroque style'.

Finger was educated on the viola da gamba and the trumpet; in addition he was able to play the violin, the recorder, the lute, the bassoon and the baryton. It was the viola da gamba which was to become his main instrument; he developed into a true gamba virtuoso, as his extant compositions show. In the middle of the 1680s he settled in London. He was appointed as a member of the royal chapel, but lost that job with the Glorious Revolution as King James had to leave the country for France. In the next years Finger played as a freelance musician and composed music for the stage. He was one of the contestants to the competition which took place in 1700 in which composers were invited to set a libretto by William Congreve, The Judgement of Paris, to music. Four composers took part, and Finger landed at fourth place. He considered this as the result of the partiality of the judges and later Charles Burney seemed to share his view as he called him "the best musician perhaps among the candidates". The disappointment led him to leave the country in 1701 and never to return. Before his departure he sold his viols and a large part of his musical library. Apparently he wanted to close a chapter of his life.

The two discs to be reviewed here are likely the very first ever completely devoted to his music. Petr Wagner and his Ensemble Tourbillon have recorded the complete music for viola da gamba solo. Most of this repertoire seems to have been written before Finger came to London or shortly thereafter. They show the various influences he experienced. The main works are a set of six sonatas which have been preserved in a manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Four of these sonatas are very much in the style which was typical for the Bohemian-Austrian violin music of the third quarter of the 17th century. They comprise a sequence of short sections of contrasting character, reflecting the stylus phantasticus which had its roots in the Italian music of the early 17th century. The Sonata V makes use of the technique of scordatura which was frequently applied in the violin music by Biber. It is the most virtuosic sonata of this set. The third and sixth sonatas bear the traces of the Corellian sonata da chiesa, and are in five movements.

Various pieces are preserved without a title. Therefore the titles which they are given in the track-list are within brackets. The Aria et variationes is an early piece which reflects Finger's virtuosity; the Divisions in g minor are easier and probably intended for his English pupil Frances Whity who copied this piece. It is based on an Italian air by Jean-Baptiste Lully. The Sonata in d minor is an arrangement of a sonata for violin by Ignazio Albertini (1644-1685); Finger has turned it into an idiomatic piece for his instrument, which includes chords. The short Prelude in e minor for viola da gamba without basso continuo links up with the tradition established in England by the likes of Christopher Simpson and William Young. The Sonatina in A is a mixture of Bohemian and modern Italian elements; it has been preserved anonymously, but is attributed to Finger on stylistic grounds. The piece called here Balletti scordati is another piece where Finger makes use of scordatura; here we have some French influences in the addition of a double to the sarabande and the gavotte. The former is a particularly beautiful piece.

Petr Wagner and his ensemble deliver brilliant and sometimes quite spectacular performances. It is a mystery why this music is not regularly performed by gambists and - as far as I know - has never been recorded before. These pieces are utterly compelling and Wagner and his colleagues make their qualities shine in full glory.

The sonatas which are the subject of the second disc were published in London and Amsterdam in 1688. Finger dedicated the collection to King James II and indicated that the sonatas were intended to be played in the Catholic chapel. It is questionable whether the king was familiar with the style of these pieces as the style of the Bohemian-Austrian violin school is prominently represented.

These sonatas show some stylistic variety which is comparable to that in his music for viola da gamba. The collection is divided into four groups of three sonatas each which differ in scoring. The first three are for violin, viola da gamba and bc. This scoring was very popular in Germany, and these pieces show strong traces of the stylus phantasticus. They comprise various short and contrasting sections. One is often reminded of the sonatas by Dietrich Buxtehude. That is emphasized through the passage for gamba solo in the Sonata II.
The next six sonatas are a mixture of Austrian-Bohemian and Italian influences. Some of these include daring harmonies and there are various effects which we know from the music by, for instance, Biber and Schmelzer. These include a movement with tremolos and a battaglia. The sonatas IV to VI are for two violins and viola di basso, the sonatas VII to IX are scored for three violins and bc.
The last three sonatas have the most 'modern' scoring of two violins, viola and bc. The texture is reminiscent of the sonata da chiesa, which emerged in the time these sonatas were composed. They mostly consist of four dances; these sonatas are the most light-hearted of the whole set.

Like the pieces for viola da gamba these sonatas are real discoveries and a great addition to the repertoire. This is music of excellent quality, and the differences in scoring and compositional styles guarantees much variation. That is also due to the order of play on this disc: three groups of four, with one sonata from each category. Echo du Danube delivers outstanding performances in true rhetorical fashion. The contrasts are fully explored, and there is certainly no lack of expression, especially in the slow movements. Only in some sonatas I could imagine a stronger dynamic shading. It is common use these days to shift between harpsichord and organ within one piece. That is the case here as well. I have never understood the reasoning behind this.

There is much more to Gottfried Finger than the pieces he wrote when he was active in the English music theatre. These two discs show a side of him which so far was hidden from the general music lover. They both deserve an unequivocal recommendation.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Echo du Danube
Ensemble Tourbillon

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