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Philipp Heinrich ERLEBACH (1657 - 1714): VI Sonate Violino & Viola da Gamba col suo Basso Continuo

Rodolfo Richter, violin; Alison McGillivray, viola da gamba; Peter McCarthy, violone; Eligio Quinteiro, theorbo; Silas Standage, harpsichord, organ
rec: November 19 - 21, 2001, London, St Michael's Church, Highgate
Linn Records - CKD 270 ( 2005) (70'59")

Sonata I in D; Sonata II in e minor; Sonata III in A; Sonata IV in C; Sonata V in B flat; Sonata VI in F


Philipp Heinrich Erlebach is a German composer from the generation before Johann Sebastian Bach. He was born in East Frisia and received his earliest musical education probably at the East Frisian court. Supported by a recommendation of the court he went to Thuringia, where from 1681 until his death he acted as Kapellmeister at the court of Count Albert Anton von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt. During these 33 years Rudolstadt developed into one of the main music centres of Thuringia, and Erlebach also made a name for himself as a composer of vocal and instrumental music. After his death the court bought his entire collection of music from his widow - an indication of how much he was appreciated. Unfortunately many of his works have been destroyed by fire in 1735.

Erlebach composed a large number of works, secular and sacred vocal music as well as instrumental works. Very little of his output was published, and only two collections of instrumental works have survived, one of which is the set of six sonatas recorded here. It was printed in Nuremberg in 1694. The scoring for violin, viola da gamba and basso continuo was very common at the time. As the violin and the viola da gamba were the most popular instruments among amateurs, there was a large market for this kind of works. Similar pieces were written by other German composers, among them Dietrich Buxtehude. But Erlebach's sonatas are different from those of his contemporaries in that the viola da gamba has a genuine independent part, whereas in most sonatas by other composers - including Buxtehude's - the viola da gamba is wandering between playing solo and participating in the basso continuo.

The sonatas are of the sonata da camera type. The first movement is in three sections (slow, fast, slow) and is followed by four dance movements: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. In Sonata III the gigue is replaced by a ciaconne which turns into a 'finale' with the indication 'adagio'. In these sonatas Erlebach aims at a mixture of the German, Italian and French styles, although the Italian style is predominant. Erlebach even apologised for the fact that - due to time pressure during the printing process - "some mistakes contrary to the Italian dialect slipped into the titles in which, in stead of Allemande, Courante, Saraband, Variatio and Gigue, should have appeared Allamanda, Corrente, Sarabanda e Variata and Giga".

Whereas the dance movements are mainly Italian in style, the German tradition of polyphony is strongly present in the opening and closing movements. Also in the German tradition is the use of the scordatura technique, which means that the strings of the violin are tuned to notes appropriate to the key of the piece. Here the Sonatas III and IV require this technique to be applied. Interesting is the Sonata VI, which requires a piccolo violin. This instrument came into use at the end of the 16th century, and gradually disappeared after the middle of the 18th century. The piccolo violin was tuned a third, fourth or fifth higher than the normal violin (not an octave, as Robert Rawson writes in the booklet). The most famous example of the use of the piccolo violin in German music is Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 1, of course. This is the first time I have encountered a German composition from the 17th century, where a piccolo violin is required.

Rodolfo Richter and his colleagues have gone a long way in the interpretation of these fine sonatas, and I appreciate the way they treat them. Richter articulates well, and is certainly aware of the strong rhetorical character of Erlebach's sonatas. Some movements are particularly well played, like the gigue from the Sonata IV or the sarabande of the Sonata I. Having said that I don't think the contrasts in these sonatas have been fully exposed here. I had liked more differentation between strong and weak notes and more dynamic shades. I also think most allegros are a little too slow.

From a technical point of view the recording is well balanced: both solo instruments are clearly audible, for instance in the opening movement of Sonata I, which consists of a dialogue between violin and viola da gamba. Only in the Sonata IV I feel the viola da gamba is a little overshadowed by the violin.

Although the interpretation leaves something to be desired I want to recommend this recording, as this is the first recording of these sonatas, which are well worth listening to. Erlebach deserves more attention than he has received so far, but it is very fortunate that both extant collections of instrumental works are now available on disc. The other collection, a set of six orchestral Overtures published in 1693, has been recorded by the Berliner Barock-Compagney on Capriccio.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

Relevant links:

Rodolfo Richter


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