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CD reviews

"Bach-Abel Society"

Les Ombres

rec: Feb 2021, Poitiers, Théâtre Auditorium
Mirare - MIR 584 (© 2022) (69'37")
Liner-notes: E/DF; lyrics - translations: F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787): [Prelude] in D (WKO 194); [Prelude] in d minor (WKO 205); Quartet in G (WKO 227) & Trio in G, op. 3,1 (WKO 80) (adagio ma non troppo); Sonata in c minor (A2:60A); Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782): Quartet in D, op. 8,2 (Warb B 52) [1]; Sonata in C, op. 16,3 (Warb B 12) (tempo di minuetto) [2]; Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): I love my love in secret (H XXXI,3) [5]; John Anderson, My Jo (H XXXIa,2) [5]; Mary's Dream (H XXXIa,1) [5]; Johann Samuel SCHRÖTER (c1752-1788): Quintet in C, op. 1,1 [3]; Sonate d'airs choisis, op. 7,6 (allegro non troppo) [4]

Sources: Johann Christian Bach, [1] Six Quartettos, op. 8, 1772; [2] Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Piano Forte with an accompanyment for the Violin or German Flute, op. 16, c1780; [3] Jean André, ed., [Trois] Quintetti pour le Clavecin, Flute, Violon, Alto et Violloncello [sic], deux composé par I. S. Schroeter et un par G. Pugnani, c1780; [4] Johann Samuel Schröter, Six Sonates d'airs choisis arranges pour le Clavecin ou le Piano Forte avec accompt. d'un Violon ou Flute ad libitum, 1789; [5] Franz Joseph Haydn, A Selection of Original Scots Songs in Three Parts, the Harmony by Haydn, n.d. [1792]

Fiona McGown, mezzo-soprano; Sylvain Sartre, transverse flute; Théotime Langlois de Swarte, violin; Margaux Blanchard, viola da gamba; Hanna Salzenstein, cello; Justin Taylor, fortepiano

Almost any lover of classical music attends public concerts. They are an essential part of modern concert life. That was different in the past. During the renaissance period, for instance, most 'art music' was performed in church or - in the case of secular and instrumental music - in private circles, at courts and in the homes of aristocrats. The 17th century saw the first performances for a paying audience, at first in particular in the field of opera. Here and there other kinds of music were performed for a wider audience, such as the Abendmusik in Lübeck in northern Germany. In the 18th century the bourgeoisie not only started to play music at home, but was also keen to attend public performances by professional musicians and ensembles. One of the most famous series of public concerts started in 1725 in Paris under the name of Concert Spirituel. It lasted until the French Revolution. Elsewhere music societies, such as the collegia musica in Germany, were active in the performance of mainly instrumental and secular vocal music, often under the direction of a prominent composer, like Bach and Telemann. In England, music societies, often consisting of amateurs, played the latest music, and after 1700 especially the works of Italian composers were very popular.

England also saw the rise of a concert series, which became quite famous: the so-called Bach-Abel Concerts, officially known as Wednesday Concerts. These were organized by two composers, who were both of German origin and had both settled in London later in their careers. Johann Christian Bach had moved to Italy, where he had acted as organist, but also had become acquainted with opera. In London he acted as a composer of operas, but also of instrumental music and keyboard works. He was active as a performer on the keyboard as well, first the harpsichord, and later the fortepiano. When he arrived, he met Carl Friedrich Abel, whom he knew from his youth in Leipzig. Abel was close to the Bach family: his father Christian Ferdinand had been Johann Sebastian Bach's colleague in Cöthen. Like his father, Carl Friedrich was a professional viola da gamba player; he also played the cello. The first Bach-Abel concert took place in 1765, the last in 1782, the year of Johann Christian Bach's death.

Although the Bach-Abel concerts can formally be ranked among the public concerts, they were not open to every music lover. People had to subscribe, and as the prices were high, they were only attended by the higher aristocracy. Bach and Abel were among the performers at these concerts, where they often played their own music. We know the names of some internationally-renowned performers who participated in the concerts, but unfortunately very little of the music that was performed. The concerts were announced in the newspapers, but no details of the music or the performers were given. Therefore any programme that attempts to give an impression of what the Bach-Abel concerts were about, has to be highly speculative. In the case of the present disc, the two pillars of the concert series are prominently represented. In addition we get several pieces by another German-born composer, who had settled in London: Johann Samuel Schröter. He was a professional keyboard player, like Bach, who took him under his wings. It is known for sure that he performed at the Bach-Abel concerts, and that justifies the inclusion of several of his compositions.

If one looks at the programme, one will have noticed that the performers confine themselves to chamber music. That may be the logical effect of the ensemble's line-up, but it also sheds light on the variety of the music that was performed. One may think that performances in a concert hall - from 1775 to 1782 in the newly-built Hanover Square Rooms - mostly consisted of orchestral music, but at the time there was no formal division between 'chamber' and 'orchestral' music. The line-up of the ensembles varied from small to pretty large. That justifies the inclusion of pieces for keyboard and violin or viola da gamba and basso continuo as well as quartets and quintets. In addition, vocal pieces may have been performed. The latter category is represented by three songs by Joseph Haydn, which are part of a large number of Scottish songs which he arranged for voice, violin and basso continuo. They were published in 1792; Haydn later arranged some of them for an accompaniment of violin, cello and keyboard. Obviously, these songs date from the time that the Bach-Abel concerts did not exist anymore. In the liner-notes, their inclusion is justified with the argument that "folksongs of this style may have been heard by Bach’s and Abel’s high-society audiences". I wonder whether other songs of this kind could have been found, which were written during the time the concerts took place. That would have been preferable.

The instrumental music can be much more easily connected to the Bach-Abel concerts, although it is admitted that it is not very likely that Abel played pieces for viola da gamba without accompaniment in public. He rather performed them in private surroundings, for an audience of friends and pupils. The other pieces from his pen are more likely to have been part of the concerts. The Sonata in c minor is taken from the so-called Maltzan Collection, discovered in 2014 in the University Library of Poznan in Poland. It was once owned by Joachim Carl, Count of Maltzan (1733-1813). It includes 25 sonatas and four duets, seven of them in autograph; 22 of these pieces were previously unknown. Maltzan, who was an amateur gambist, may have acquired these pieces during his stay in London as a Prussian diplomat between 1766 and 1782. These sonatas may give us some idea of what Abel used to play in concerts, as - according to Peter Holman - they are technically more advanced than most other pieces from his pen that have been preserved. Abel did not only compose music for his own instrument; his oeuvre is varied, and the two movements of his Quartet in G are arrangements of the outer movements of a flute quartet; the second is identical with the closing movement of a string quartet. The performers have inserted another piece by Abel between the original two movements, taken from a trio for two flutes or violins and cello.

Johann Christian Bach opens the programme with a quartet for oboe, violin, viola and bass, taken from a set of six. A manuscript in the possession of the Bach Archiv in Leipzig includes five of the six quartets, and its title-page mentions the viola da gamba instead of the viola. Bach may well have intended this part to be played by Abel. The writing of the oboe part may have been inspired by the famous oboist Johann Christian Fischer, who arrived in London in 1768. Other editions of these quartets have flute or violin as alternatives to the oboe. It is performed here with transverse flute. In 2017 Coviello Classics released a complete recording of this set with oboe.

The third main composer in the programme is Johann Samuel Schröter. He was the son of Johann Friedrich Schröter, a professional oboist, who spent much effort into the musical development of his children. In 1771 he took them on concert tours across Germany, the Netherlands and England. The three eldest children, among them Johann Samuel, performed at the Bach-Abel concerts. When the family returned to Leipzig, Johann Samuel decided to stay in England, where he became a successful keyboard player and composer. He was admired for his graceful piano playing: "His touch was extremely light and graceful so that just to watch him play became a pleasure in itself", according to a German weekly. His performances had a marked influence on the promotion of the new fortepiano in England. Like Bach, he was an exponent of the galant style, as is clearly demonstrated in the two pieces included here. In both the keyboard plays the dominant part. These works make clear that his oeuvre deserves more interest than it has received to date.

The programme performed here may be highly speculative, but it certainly is successful in giving an impression of what was played at the Bach-Abel concerts and the musical style that was in vogue in London at the time. The pieces included here are well-chosen: all of them are musically interesting and of excellent quality. The performances deserve nothing but praise. The ensemble's members are all top-class artists, who have a very good understanding of the style of this repertoire. The slow movements in the pieces by Abel and Schröter demonstrate that music in the galant style is not devoid of expression. The solo pieces by Abel sound as if they are improvised on the spot. Fiona McGown has a nice voice, and her singing suits the three Haydn songs well, but a little less vibrato would have made the performances even better.

Apart from historical considerations, this is a very entertaining disc, which will give the present listener as much pleasure as the audiences in the time of Bach and Abel.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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