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German Music for Viola da gamba

[I] "Feuer und Bravour [Ardour and Bravura] - The viola da gamba at the court of Frederick the Great"
Musicke & Mirth

rec: August 2007, Brno, Vojenská nemocnice hospital (chapel)
Ramée - RAM 0803 (© 2008) (68'22")

[II] Franz Xaver HAMMER: "The Last Gambist - Sonatas for viola da gamba"

Hamburger Ratsmusik
Dir: Simone Eckert

rec: Jan 19 -22, 1999, Bremen, Studio Radio Bremen
Christophorus - CHR 77303 (© 2008) (75'48")

[I] anon (mid-18th C): Rondeau in Ca; Scherzando in Fa; Georg Anton BENDA (1722-1795): Sonatina I in Dd; Sonatina II in Fd; Sonatina III in a minord; Sonatina IV in Cd; Sonatina V in e minord; Sonatina VI in d minord; Johann Gottlieb GRAUN (1702/03-1771): Trio Concertante in Dabc; Ludwig Christian HESSE (1716-1772): Castor et Pollux (Jean-Philippe Rameau): Descente de Jupiter Majestueuxab; Le Roy et le Fermier (François-André-Danican Philidor/Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny): Ah! Ma Tanteab; andante allegrettoab; Les Fêtes d'Hébé (Jean-Philippe Rameau): Accourez, riante jeunesseab; Tambourin en Rondeauab; Zaïde, reine de Grenade (Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer): ouvertureab; lent et douxab; Christoph SCHAFFRATH (1709-1763): Duetto in d minora
[II] Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787): Adagio in d minor (WKO 189)d; Allegro in d minor (WKO 192)d; Franz Xaver HAMMER (1741-1817): Sonata No 1 in Adefg; Sonata No 2 in Ddefg; Sonata No 3 in Ddefg; Sonata No 4 in Dde; Sonata No 5 in Adefg;

[I] Jane Achtman, Irene Klein, viola da gambaa; with Rebeka Rusó, cellob; Barbara Maria Willi, harpsichordc, fortepianod
[II] Simone Eckert, viola da gambad; Dorothee Palm, celloe; Ulrich Wedemeier, theorbo, guitarf; Karl-Ernst Went, harpsichord, fortepianog

During the first half of the 18th century the viola da gamba was gradually disappearing from the music scene. In France, for a long time the centre of gamba playing, the modern fashionable cello was driving the viola da gamba into the sidelines. But there was one country where the gamba held its ground: Germany. And it was especially Berlin, and more in particular the court of Frederick the Great, where the gamba was played and where composers wrote music for it. The Crown Prince, Frederick's nephew Frederick William II, even learned to play the gamba from the age of 13, and maintained correspondence with Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, the last great gambist of France.

The most skilled gambist in Berlin was Ludwig Christian Hesse (1716 - 1772). He was from a musical family, his father being a gambist himself and his mother being a professional singer. He was taught at first by his father, and from 1738 to 1741 he was a member of the chapel of the court in Darmstadt. He moved to Berlin and entered the royal chapel of Frederick the Great and from 1761 he became a member of the private chapel of Frederick William II. In 1771 he returned to Darmstadt, where he died the next year.

Most of the music written for the viola da gamba in Berlin was obviously written for Hesse. Among them are the sonatas for viola da gamba and bc by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, his colleague in the Berlin chapel, and five solo concertos by Johann Gottlieb Graun, Konzertmeister of the chapel. Graun composed 22 works for or with viola da gamba, and the Trio Concertante in D is one of them. This was originally conceived as a concerto for 4 instruments (two transverse flutes, violin and viola da gamba), strings and bc. This version has disappeared, and what we get here is a 'reduction', as it were, for two viole da gamba and bc. The nice thing is that the difference between the tutti and the soli are clearly audible.

Christoph Schaffrath was one of the early appointees in Frederick's chapel, and in 1741, when Frederick became King, he was appointed musician to the King's sister Anna Amalia. The Duetto in d minor suggests that Hesse was sometimes actively involved in the composition of music for his instrument. The two parts have different staves, one of them written by Hesse - it includes detailed articulations - and the other by Schaffrath. It is a very nice piece with two parts of a quite different character.

A most interesting aspect of the disc of Musicke & Mirth is the inclusion of pieces by Christian Hesse himself. These are all arrangements of movements from French operas, scored for two viole da gamba and bc, played here on the cello. The best-known piece is certainly the 'Tambourin en Rondeau' from Rameau's Les Fêtes d'Hébé. These arrangements are ingeniously made and work very well in this scoring.

The two anonymous pieces are for two gambas and bear the traces of the music composed for gamba in Berlin at the time. Lastly this disc contains six keyboard pieces by Georg Anton Benda, who played as a violinist in the royal chapel from 1742 to 1750, when he was appointed as Kapellmeister of Duke Frederick III of Saxe-Gotha. We cannot be sure that the keyboard pieces recorded here were written during his time in Berlin, but they certainly fit in with the style of that place and time.

These keyboard pieces are played on the fortepiano which seems not the most obvious choice. In the 1780s Benda composed keyboard concertos which were clearly written for the harpsichord, which Benda seems to have preferred. That doesn't mean the sonatinas can't be played on the fortepiano, though, as these pieces were printed and the fortepiano was increasingly popular in the 1770s and 1780s. The instrument is from 1797, but does sound somewhat older than that. There are some similarities to the tangent piano, another typical instrument of that time.

But this disc's main interest is, of course, the music for viole da gamba, and all these works are very interesting and of splendid quality. This disc gives an excellent portrait of the musical scene in Berlin, and the role of the viola da gamba in it. It is also a most deserved monument for one of the greatest viola da gamba players in history.

And Musicke & Mirth, with its guests, give wonderful performances. The nice rhythms of the two anonymous pieces are brilliantly exposed and so are the contrasts between soli and tutti in Graun's Trio Concertante. The latter piece is definitely the highlight of this disc and also closes the programme.

The disc of the Hamburger Ratsmusik is a logical sequel, as it were, of this one. It seems it was originally released in 2001, but it is my impression it has never been given that much attention. It certainly should have, because it brings music by what, according to the title, was the last gambist. That is to say: the last gambist before the rediscovery of the instrument, which happened well before the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, it was one of the earliest instruments to be rediscovered.

Franz Xaver Hammer has no entry in New Grove, and that is probably an indication of the prejudices about the history of the gamba, which is generally thought to be over well before the classical era. And Hammer wasn't only a gambist, he also played the cello and probably the violin as well. For some years he was a member of the court chapel of the Esterházys, and therefore a colleague of Haydn. There are reasons to believe they were not just colleagues, but also personal friends. The gamba wasn't completely in the margin of music making at the court. Haydn has written several pieces with a gamba part, and another member of the chapel was Andreas Lidl - wrongly called 'Anton' in the booklet - who played the baryton and the viola da gamba. Stricly speaking Hammer can only be called 'the last gambist' because another one, Joseph Fiala, died just one year before him.

In 1778 Hammer left the Esterházys for Pressburg where he remained until 1782, as he started travelling through Europe. In 1785 he became a chamber musician at the court of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in Ludwigslust. In the Mecklenburg State Library in Schwerin all Hammer's compositions have been preserved, containing of just the five sonatas recorded here. They have various structures: the Sonatas Nos 2, 4 and 5 are in three movements, the Sonata No 3 in four, whereas the Sonata No 1 has six movements. All sonatas are scored for viola da gamba and 'bass'. It is not sure whether that should be interpreted as 'basso continuo', which would be rather old-fashioned. They could probably also be played with another string bass alone, like the cello. That is how the Sonata No 5 in A is performed. In the other sonatas the bass part is performed as basso continuo, with various combinations of string, plucked and keyboard instruments. There is no objection against this; only the use of a theorbo seems a bit odd, as that instrument had probably disappeared at the time. The guitar is a more plausible choice.

The sonatas by Hammer are very good pieces of music, which contain a lot of fresh and original ideas and are very well-written. In particular the Sonata No 1 in A is a delightful piece, which contains a movement for gamba solo. Some of the melodic material in this movement sound rather familiar. In several movements Simone Eckert adds cadenzas. The two solo pieces by Carl Friedrich Abel, one of the greatest gambists from around 1750, are a nice addition to the programme.

Both she and the ensemble give engaging and technically impeccable performances. The rhythmic pulse is very well realised, giving many movements a truly dance-like character. This disc delivers more than an hour of highly entertaining and captivating music.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Hamburger Ratsmusik
Musicke & Mirth

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