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William BABELL (c1690 - 1723): "With Proper Graces - Sonatas for Oboe And B.c."

Concert Royal Köln

rec: May 10-13 & 16, 2010, Dormagen, Katholische Kirche St. Martinus, historische Zollfeste Zons
Musicaphon - M 56924 (© 2010) (72'30")
Liner-notes: E/D

Sonata No 1 in B flat; Sonata No 2 in c minor; Sonata No 3 in f minor; Sonata No 4 in g minor; Sonata No 5 in E flat; Sonata No 6 in F; Sonata No 7 in B flat; Sonata No 8 in E flat; Sonata No 9 in B flat; Sonata No 10 in E flat; Sonata No 11 in g minor; Sonata No 12 in c minor

Karl Schröter, oboe; Ulrike Mix, viola da gamba, cello; Thorsten Drees, double bass; Yamato Hasumi, theorbo; Harald Hoeren, harpsichord; Willi Kronenberg, organ

William Babell can probably be considered a 'minor composer' and his music isn't often performed and recorded. He is most famous for this harpsichord arrangements of arias from Handel's operas. These are very virtuosic, but didn't earn him only praise. Charles Burney, never afraid to give a frank opinion, wrote that Babell "acquired great celebrity by wire-drawing the favourite songs of the opera of Rinaldo, and others of the same period, into showy and brilliant lessons, which by mere rapidity of finger in playing single sounds, without the assistance of taste, expression, harmony or modulation, enabled the performer to astonish ignorance, and acquire the reputation of a great player at a small expence … Mr Babel … at once gratifies idleness and vanity". A great player he certainly must have been. The music historian Sir John Hawkins wrote that there were very few other than the composer himself who would be able to play his music properly.

Babell received his first music lessons from his father, Charles, who was a bassoonist and played in the Drury Lane Theatre orchestra. He also was educated by Pepusch and, according to Mattheson, Handel. Whether the latter is true is not established, but he certainly had a great admiration for Handel, as he made his arrangements of his opera arias from memory. He played an important role at the London music scene of his days. He frequently performed at the harpsichord and seems to have been a violinist at the private band of King George I. He also performed with some other famous artists, like William Corbett and Jacques Paisible.

On this disc the complete XII Solos for a violin or hautboy (book 1) are recorded. Babell follows the Corellian model of the sonata da chiesa, with its common sequence of four movements. There are some exceptions: the Sonata No 2 in c minor has five movements, the third and fourth of which are slow. The Sonata No 11 in g minor has three movements (adagio, vivace, allegro) and the Sonata No 12 in c minor just two: adagio and vivace. Some of the adagios are very short: the one in Sonata No 8 in E flat has just eight bars.

The sonatas were printed by Walsh in 1725, two years after Babell's death. This is the only source as the original manuscript seems to be lost. In her notes on the performance Karla Schröter writes that "it was necessary to correct many obvious mistakes". That can hardly surprise as Walsh wasn't the most reliable publisher, as Handel experienced all too well. The title page mentions the violin and the oboe as alternative instruments. Although Babell was a violinist it seems that he had intended the sonatas for the oboe in the first place as none of them exceed this instrument's range. Interestingly, it also says "with proper Graces adapted to each Adagio by the Author". This means that Babell has added ornaments in the adagios which are printed in a smaller font than the main notes. This raises the question how to treat them. Are these meant as examples of how to ornament a melodic line? Or did Babell expect performers to play them as they were printed? In this respect it is necessary to mention that such publications were aimed at amateurs, but very few of them played the oboe.

The interpreters decided to perform them as they were written down. Elsewhere little ornamentation is played which is rather surprising. The fact that the adagios are enriched with ornamentation doesn't indicate the other movements should do almost without. Another issue is the performance of repeats. The print is ambiguous in this respect, and the interpreters have omitted them in most cases. That allowed the recording of all sonatas on one disc. The result sometimes defies logic.

That said, it is hard to tell how to deal with this issue. As long as the original manuscript doesn't show up it is impossible to decide what Babell's intentions were. The performance would probably had been more interesting if more repeats were played. Or maybe not: the playing of Karla Schröter is beautiful and nice to hear, but not very engaging and lacks difference. There are quite a number of moments which suggest that these sonatas have stronger dramatic traits than the performances suggest. For instance, there are a number of leaps in the oboe part which are not given enough attention. And too often whole sequences of notes are played at more or less the same dynamic level where a careful dynamic shading would make them more interesting. Also some long notes are dynamically too flat. The tempi of the fast movements are often too slow, like the prestos in the Sonata No 5 in E flat and the Sonata No 9 in B flat.

I found it hard to keep my concentration while listening. Generally I am inclined to think that this has more to do with the performance than with the music. Considering that no other recording exists in particular those interested in music for the oboe will be pleased with this recording. But they are well advised not to consume this disc at a stretch.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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