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Music at the Habsburg Court

[I] Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1620/23 - 1680): "Barockes Welttheater - Sonate & Balletti" (A world theatre of the Baroque)
Freiburger BarockConsort
rec: May 2010, Freiburg, Paulussaal
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902087 (© 2012) (62'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Balletto di Pastori e Ninfe; Balletto di Zeffiri; Balletto primo di Spoglia di Papagi; La bella pastora; Polnische Sackpfeiffen; Serenata con altre arie; Sonata IV a 6 in a minor [1]; Sonata a 2 in d minor; Sonata a due violini scordati; Sonata amabilis a 4; Sonata (Battaglia) a 7

[1] Sacro-profanus concentus musicus, 1662

Petra Müllejans, Christa Kittel, violin; Beatrix Hülsemann, violin, viola; Ulrike Kaufmann, viola; Hille Perl, viola da gamba; Frauke Hess, Marthe Perl, viola da gamba, violone; Thomas Boysen, lute; Torsten Johann, harpsichord, organ; Michael Metzler, percussion

[II] "Concert à la cour des Habsbourg"
Ensemble Stravaganza
rec: April 2011 & April 2012, Saint-Michel l'Observatoire (B), Église Haute
Aparté - AP041 (© 2012) (62'15")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Sonata III in F (C 140) [3]; Sonata V in e minor (C 142) [3]; Sonata X in g minor 'Die Kreuzigung' (C 99) [2]; Johann Jacob FROBERGER (1616-1667): Lamentation faite sur la mort très douloureuse de Sa Majesté Impériale, Ferdinand le troisième (FbWV 633)a; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1620/23-1680): Sonata III in g minor [1]; Johann Jakob WALTHER (c1650-1717): Suite VIII in E [4]

[1] Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Sonatae unarum fidium seu a violino solo, 1664; Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, [2] [Mystery Sonatas], 1674?; [3] Sonatae, violino solo, 1681; [4] Johann Jakob Walther, Hortulus chelicus uni violino duabus, tribus et quatuor, 1688

Domitille Gilon, violin; Ronald Martin Alonso, viola da gamba; Damien Pouvreau, theorbo; Thomas Soltani, harpsichord (solo a); Olivier Salandini, organ

The rich musical culture at the imperial court in Vienna is well documented. Music which was written for performances at court is regularly recorded. These two discs shed light on two aspects of musical life which are very different and which come especially to the fore in the disc devoted to music by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. The sonatas refer to the music played in more intimate surroundings, whereas the ballet pieces reflect the often extravagant celebrations, for instance during the Carnival season.

Schmelzer was born in Lower Austria and moved to Vienna, but it is not known exactly when. It is also not known for sure who his teacher was; it could have been Antonio Bertali who was a member of the chapel from at least 1631 and Kapellmeister from 1649 until his death in 1669. There is documentary evidence that Schmelzer entered the service of the court in 1635-36. In 1649 he was appointed a violinist in the court orchestra, in 1671 he became vice-Kapellmeister and in 1679 Kapellmeister, one year before he died of the plague. In 1665 he succeeded Wolfgang Ebner as imperial ballet composer. That explains the ballet music which is part of the disc of the Freiburger BarockConsort. It is one of the lesser-known aspects of his output. The booklet includes a contemporary description of the Carnival celebrations of 1636.

One of the ballets specifically refers to Carnival. The Serenata con altre arie ends with a 'Lamento'; at the end a hand-written note says: "[There] follows the song of lamentation on the unhappy death of Saint Carnival, on 22 February 1667". In these pieces characters from the commedia dell'arte are represented, such as Scaramouche and Harlequin. In some of these ballets percussion is added. Whether this is prescribed by the composer I don't know, but it is certainly not out of place in this kind of pieces.

Schmelzer was a violin virtuoso and that is reflected by several pieces for one and two violins. The Sonata a due is based on a basso ostinato; the solo parts are scored for violin and viola da gamba which regularly imitate each other. Especially interesting is the Sonata a due Violini scordati. The use of scordatura, which means that the strings of the violin are tuned to notes appropriate to the key of the piece, was especially popular in Austria. Moreover, Schmelzer has indicated that the basso continuo is ad libitum. It can be omitted and this means that this piece is one of the first in history for violin(s) without a bass. This is also the way it is played here.

In the string music written in Germany and Austria we frequently find depictions of all kinds of things, such as other instruments and animals. Schmelzer's oeuvre includes various pieces of that kind, such as Polnische Sackpfeifen, one of his best-known compositions, which combines references to 'Polish bagpipes' with popular Austrian songs, and the Battaglia a 7, a piece for six strings divided into two 'choirs'. The military drum is imitated by the violone. The programme is extended by some ensemble pieces which also belong to the better-known part of Schmelzer's oeuvre.

The Freiburger BarockConsort, consisting of members of the Freiburger Barockorchester, delivers technically brilliant performances and plays with passion and flair. The title of the disc expresses the idea that Schmelzer's music is theatrical in character, and that goes not only for the more illustrative pieces, such as the Battaglia but for his instrumental music in general. That comes off very well here.

The theatrical character of German and Austrian violin music comes also clearly to the fore at the second disc. Here we find some of the most brilliant pieces for violin and bc ever written. They all consist of sections of a strongly contrasting character. The virtuosity of Schmelzer is expressed in his Sonata III in g minor where he makes use of double stopping which is also an important feature of the pieces by Biber and Walther. The latter belong to the generation after Schmelzer and have further developed the techniques which we can find in Schmelzer's violin works. They both make use of double stopping and their works are often surprising. The Sonata III in F by Biber and the Suite VIII in E by Walther both end in a rather abrupt and unexpected way.

There is also a difference between Biber and Walther, though. The former frequently made use of the scordatura technique, especially in his Mystery sonatas, from which the Ensemble Stravaganza plays Sonata X, 'The Crucifixion'. Walther outright rejected this technique and rather preferred to write imitative pieces. The programme omits specimens of this genre. It includes a suite from the collection Hortus chelicus. In this collection as well as the other, Scherzi da violino solo, the form of the variation takes a prominent place. The Suite VIII comprises three movements, a prelude, called aria and two variations, a sarabanda and a giga respectively.

Imitative and programmatic music wasn't only written for violin or for an ensemble of strings, but also for keyboard. A famous example is the Lamentation on the death of Ferdinand III, Habsburg emperor, in 1657. The inclusion of this piece is fitting as Ferdinand was personally responsible for the flowering of music at the imperial court in Vienna.

This disc comprises six brilliant and enthralling compositions which are mostly technically demanding and bear witness to the virtuosity of the musicians and composers who worked at the Habsburg court. The inclusion of a piece by Walther is a bit odd as he never worked in Vienna. The booklet gives some information about Nicola Matteis, an Italian violinist and guitarist who settled in England. The track-list doesn't mention any music by him, though. You will hear these pieces in the last track: Walther's Suite ends at 7'15", then three guitar pieces by Matteis follow at 8'42". This is pretty weird: the music doesn't fit into the programme and the booklet doesn't give any clue as to where these pieces - which are not specifically mentioned - are allocated.

That doesn't take anything away from my great admiration for these interpretations. Domitille Gillon plays the violin compositions brilliantly. She has a very good sense for their dramatic structure and delivers rhetorical and gestural interpretations. Her colleagues strongly contribute to these performances making a lasting impression. Thomas Soltani plays Froberger's Lamentation very well. Debatable is the repetition of the last section: the rising figure at the end depicts the emperor's ascension to heaven. Why on earth should that be repeated?

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Freiburger BarockConsort
Ensemble Stravaganza

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