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"Musik für Viola d'amore" (Music for viola d'amore)

Anne Schumanna, Klaus Voigtb, viola d'amore; Alison McGillivray, cello; Petra Burmann, theorbo, guitar; Sebastian Knebel, harpsichord

rec: Feb 15 - 18, 2010, Kloster Michaelstein (Refektorium)
Genuin Classics - GEN 10183 (© 2010) (76'43")

anon (1st half 18th C): Trio for 2 viole d'amore and bc in Dab; Trio for 2 viole d'amore and bc in Aab; Wilhelm GANSPECK (1687-1770): Ouverture for 2 viole d'amore and bc in Aab; Johann Peter GUZINGER (1683-1773): Suite for viola d'amore and bc in Aa; Christian PEZOLD (1677-1733): Partita for viola d'amore in Aa; Franz Simon SCHUCHBAUER (?-1743): Trio for 2 viole d'amore and bc in Aab

The viola d'amore is one of those instruments whose popularity was short-lived. It became in vogue at the end of the 17th century, especially in South Germany and Austria, and disappeared at the end of the 18th. Within that relatively short span of time it had a strong appeal, though. A considerable number of composers explored its expressive qualities for music of various kinds. Among them are solo concertos, but in particular chamber music. It was also used in vocal music, for instance by Johann Sebastian Bach in his St John Passion and by Vivaldi in his oratorio Juditha triumphans. The first disc offers a number of pieces for one and two viole d'amore and bc, and one partita for viola d'amore solo.

The instrument wasn't called viola d'amore for no reason. It was especially the sweetness of its sound which appealed to music lovers and composers. The liner-notes begin with a poem by the German publisher Christoph Weigel, which in translation goes like this: "Viol d'amour I'm called, and rightly so, because my rare, sweet tone makes lovers long, their spirits raised. Yet I am often praised by saddened hearts, when they, plunged deep in pain, delight in dulcet tones. Whoever music knows and loves will quick confess, that I as grace itself by all must needs be called". The illustration of the instrument he printed didn't come with technical information, but emphasized the aesthetics and the effect of its sound. It was exactly the technically complex nature of the instrument which contributed to its downfall. Leopold Mozart, although praising the tonal character of the viola d'amore, added in his violin method that "this instrument suffers from many errors in tuning". Manfred Fechner explains: "[Related] to this is the frequent (and for the uninitiated rather complicated to read) notation of the viola d'amore parts in tablature (scordatura), i.e., the notation does not correspond to the sounding pitches, but instead the pitches are written as though the player were 'mistreating' a 'normally' tuned violin". When in the course of the 18th century naturalness in music was increasingly emphasized the complicated notation of the viola d'amore led to its gradual disappearance from the music scene.

With the exception of the Suite in A by Johann Peter Guzinger all pieces on the programme are from the collection of Johann Georg Pisendel, who was Germany's most virtuosic violinist of the second quarter of the 18th century. He was a player of the viola d'amore himself, and it is suggested the Partita in A by Christian Pezold has been composed at his request. There are also question marks in regard to the scoring, as it is a matter of debate whether this piece may have been originally written with a basso continuo part. It is possible to imagine a bass part, but while listening I didn't have the feeling something was missing. It is a remarkable piece for its length: it begins with an intrada - taking the place of the more common 'overture' or 'prelude' - and goes on with allemande, courante, sarabande, menuet and gigue. Then follow five other movements: aria, gavott, bourée, rondeau and another menuet. In the performance Anne Schumann makes use of the original embellishments by Pisendel.

Because of the complicated nature of the instrument pieces for the viola d'amore couldn't be very virtuosic, certainly not in comparison to the violin. Most music for the instrument is of an entertaining nature, which doesn't prevent it from being expressive. That is certainly the case with the pieces played here. The composers are largely little-known and hardly ever appear on the programmes of concerts or recordings. Franz Simon Schuchbauer has no entry in New Grove, nor have Johann Peter Guzinger and Wilhelm Ganspeck. Fortunately the liner-notes fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Schuchbauer was a member of the orchestra of the Elector in Munich, Guzinger was himself a player of the viola d'amore and acted as a chamber musician to the Bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria. Ganspeck entered the convent at Ranshoven and published sacred works. That seems all there is to tell.

Schuchbauer's Trio in A is a quite beautiful piece with a particularly nice 'aria' of a lyrical nature. There is a considerable amount of counterpoint in this Trio as well. The anonymous Trio in A contains a musette in which the basso continuo provides the drone. It is followed by an 'aria inglese'. An English dance also appears in Ganspeck's Ouverture in A: the fifth movement is a 'hornepipe'. The piece opening movement is in binary form: it begins with an overture which is followed by passepied. The work closes with a 'chaccone'.

One feature of this recording needs to be mentioned. The viole d'amore has gut strings, only in the anonymous Trio in D metal strings are used. In the booklet Klaus Voigt writes: "A few years ago we discovered a new dimension in performance practice in a highly interesting article by Kai Köpp. The resonance resulting from the open triad tuning as well as the silvery tone of the metal strings were as fascinating as the sound of the instruments with resonant strings". The question as to whether the use of metal strings has its roots in performance practice of the 18th century is not answered.

The performances are first class. The sound of the viole d'amore is intriguing and indeed sweet like all the historical sources say. The ensemble is immaculate and the two viole d'amore blend perfectly. The rhythms of the dance movements are very clearly exposed, also thanks to the contributions of the basso continuo section. This is simply a wonderful and compelling disc with fine music in equally fine interpretations.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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Anne Schumann

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