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CD reviews

Music for viola of the 18th century

[I] "Viola - Music of the Bach family"
Roger Myers, viola; Céline Frisch, harpsichord
rec: Jan 2 - 4, 2016, Hamburg, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle
Notos - 001 (© 2017) (59'45")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Sonata for keyboard and [viola da gamba]/viola in g minor (Wq 88 / H 541/510); Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH (1732-1795): Concerto for keyboard, viola and orchestra in E flat (BR JCFB C 44) (larghetto cantabile); Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Wo soll ich fliehen hin (BWV 5) (Ergieße dich reichlich, du göttliche Quelle, aria); Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710-1784): Sonata for keyboard and viola in c minor; Johann Joachim QUANTZ (1697-1773): Sonata for viola and bc in a minor (QV 1,114)

[II] "Viola Galante"
Pauline Sachse, viola; Andreas Hecker, harpsichord
rec: Sept 2016, Weimar, Fürstenhaus (Festsaal)
Avi-Music - 8553312 (© 2017) (64'27")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Giorgio ANTONIOTTO (c1692-c1776): Sonata for viola and bc in E flat; Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Sonata for keyboard and [viola da gamba]/viola in g minor (Wq 88 / H 541/510); Franz BENDA (1709-1786): Sonata for viola and bc in c minor (L III,137); Sonata for viola and bc in F; Christlieb Siegmund BINDER (1723-1789): Trio for harpsichord and viola in D (FleB 2.10); William FLACKTON (1709-1798): Sonata for viola and bc in c minor, op. 2,8

Discs with music for the viola seldom land on my desk. The discs under review here could well be the very first. The main reason may be that not that much music for the viola was written during the period in music history to which this site is devoted. This is confirmed by William Flackton in the preface to the printed edition of his sonatas Op. 2 (London, 1770). "Flackton consulted London music sellers and learned that there was a need for viola repertoire; with this publication he intended to fill the gap. In the foreword he stated his intention to sensitize the public and awaken their enthusiasm for the viola's rich timbre as a solo instrument, likewise hoping that his example would inspire other composers to publish works in the same genre" (booklet 'Viola Galante').

Historically the word 'viola' could refer to various kinds of instruments. In the 17th and early 18th centuries it was used for an instrument which could be played in two different registers: alto and tenor, for instance in Albinoni's Sinfonie e concerti a cinque op. 2 (1700). In both cases it acted as an "instrument of the middle", as New Grove states. This is confirmed by Roger Myers in his liner-notes to the first disc. He mentions that the baroque era favoured higher-pitched voices and instruments. "The chief aesthetic was almost always about the polarity between the basso continuo and the melodic line(s). Instruments commonly used in ensemble music, therefore, were featured comparatively less in solo contexts". That said, he questions the common belief that very little music for viola solo was written in the baroque and pre-classical periods. There is more than one might think, and that was one of the incentives to put together a programme of music which focuses on compositions by members of the Bach family.

It is well known that some famous composers had a strong liking of the viola. One of them was Mozart, the other Johann Sebastian Bach. Carl Philipp Emanuel stated about his father that "as the greatest expert and judge of harmony he liked best to play the viola". However, he never composed a concerto or a sonata for it. The best-known viola parts are those in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, in which two violas take care of the upper parts. The viola was used in six cantatas as an obbligato instrument in arias. One of them is 'Ergieße dich reichlich, du göttliche Quelle' from the cantata Wo soll ich fliehen hin (BWV 5). In this performance the basso continuo is played with the left hand on the harpsichord, whereas the vocal part, scored for tenor, is realised with the right hand, an octave above written pitch.

The programme opens with a work by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach himself. The Sonata in g minor has come down to us in two versions, one for viola da gamba, the other for viola. The former is the original version, and was probably written for Ludwig Christian Hesse, a true virtuoso on his instrument, who was a prominent member of the chapel of Frederik the Great. He seems to have inspired Emanuel to write several sonatas for the viola da gamba. At that time the instrument was already in decline, and therefore it is no surprise that the viola was sometimes suggested as an alternative. The viola version has been preserved in a copy by Johann Heinrich Michel, Emanuel's main copyist in Hamburg, and probably dates from after 1768.

One of the most prominent members of Frederick's chapel was Johann Joachim Quantz, who was also the King's flute teacher. His oeuvre comprises almost exclusively compositions for the transverse flute, and he wrote a treatise on playing this instrument. It may therefore surprise that we get here a sonata for viola and basso continuo from his pen. A catalogue of 1762 of Breitkopf includes the opening bars of this sonata. Myers turned to the complete catalogue of Quantz's oeuvre and discovered a flute sonata in g minor which obviously was the original version. He decided to reconstruct the arrangement for viola, and the result is the sonata included here.

To some extent the Sonata in c minor by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is also surprising. We know very little chamber music from his pen. It includes six duets for two violas, but the work-list in New Grove does not mention the sonata played here, and the track-list omits a number in the catalogue of his works. On the internet I learned that this sonata is attributed to either Wilhelm Friedemann or to Johann Gottlieb Graun. The latter seems a logical option, as his oeuvre includes some other sonatas for the viola. Moreover, Graun's chamber music is generally more virtuosic than Friedemann's, and this viola sonata certainly is technically demanding, and includes double stopping. The issue of its authenticity is not discussed in the liner-notes.

The fourth member of the Bach family represented in the programme is Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, generally known as the 'Bückeburg Bach'. In his oeuvre we find a number of solo and double concertos. As he was a keyboard player by profession, most of the concertos are for keyboard, undoubtedly intended for his own use. In two concertos the keyboard is joined by another instrument, the oboe and the viola respectively. Here we hear the slow movement from the latter. The tutti are omitted here, but Myers states that in this movement there is "virtually no orchestral accompaniment", and therefore a performance with viola and harpsichord doesn't give any real problems.

Undoubtedly this is a most interesting disc. CPE Bach's sonata has been recorded before, but obviously Quantz's sonata is new to the catalogue, and the same probably goes for Wilhelm Friedemann's sonata, unless someone has recorded it under the name of Graun. Myers plays a viola by J.B. Guadagnini of 1763 and the copy of a baroque bow. I wonder whether the viola is really in its original condition or has been modernized at some stage. It does sound a little too modern to my ears, but that is probably also due to Myers's playing. He is not a specialist in early music, and usually plays modern instruments. It seems to me that this is clearly audible in these performances, which are quite different from other performances of 18th-century music for the viola I have heard. Part of it is that Myers uses much more vibrato than is common practice in early music performances. I found the CPE Bach sonata rather disappointing, also because of the dominance of the viola; the harpsichord is underexposed here. The balance is better in Wilhelm Friedemann's sonata, which I find the most satisfying part of this disc. Bach's aria doesn't come off that well. The arrangement as such is legitimate, but it would have been much better if the bass and the tenor part had been performed at the organ. Here the harpsichord is again overshadowed by the viola.

Overall, I am a little in two minds about this disc. From the angle of repertoire it is highly recommendable, but the performances are not entirely convincing, and I feel that the interpretations are too much compromised by a rather 'modern' approach to this repertoire, despite the historical viola and bow.

The second disc is just as interesting as far as the repertoire is concerned. The pieces Pauline Sachse and Andreas Hecker have selected are from the same period as those on the first disc. They open with the same sonata by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach that is the first item on the previous disc. The remaining pieces may well receive their world premiere recording here. I already mentioned William Flackton, who is a completely new name to me. He was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral and started working as a bookseller. In addition he was active as organist and as composer of sacred vocal music and chamber music. The Sonata in c minor is one of two sonatas for viola and cello respectively which he published in 1776 as a supplement to the set of six sonatas Op. 2 I already mentioned, which also comprised sonatas for each of the two instruments. The Sonata in c minor is in four movements and is stylistically a relic of the past as it is written in the late baroque idiom. Flackton's sonatas are probably the very first for the viola ever printed in England.

The next composer in the programme is another unknown quantity. Giorgio Antoniotto was born and died in Milan. In between he went to the Netherlands; here he lived in the mid-1730s and then moved to London, where he stayed for more than two decades. He published a treatise in 1760; about a decade later he returned to Milan. His oeuvre comprises two cello concertos and 22 sonatas for a solo instrument - mostly cello - and basso continuo. The Sonata in E flat, dated 1753, is one of two sonatas for viola and bc which have been preserved in autograph manuscripts and are part of the US Library of Congress. It is in three movements: slow - fast - fast, according to the fashion of the mid-18th century.

Franz Benda was one of five children of the Bohemian linen weaver and village musician Jan Jiri Benda; all of them became professional musicians. Franz was educated on the violin and as a singer, and this combination left its mark in his oeuvre and his style of playing. He became a member of the chapel of Frederick the Great and was admired for his expressive playing. Charles Burney wrote that he had "acquired a great reputation in his profession, not only by his expressive manner of playing the violin, but by his graceful and affecting compositions for that instrument". He was also sought after as a teacher. Among his pupils was Johann Peter Salomon, the German violinist who is mainly known as an impresario working in London, and responsible for Haydn's visits to England. Benda's oeuvre comprises exclusively instrumental works. Most of his output is for his own instrument, but he also composed two viola sonatas, both included here. One may assume that he wrote them for his own use, as most violinists were able to play the viola as well. The features of his violin sonatas manifest themselves here as well. Benda's compositions were especially admired for the adagios. Both sonatas open with such an adagio, and these movements are just as expressive as those from his violin sonatas.

With Christlieb Siegmund Binder we stay close to the world of Benda and CPE Bach. Binder was born and died in Dresden, where he worked all his life. As a choirboy he received lessons from Pantaleon Hebenstreit, who was famous across Europe as a player of the pantaleon, a large sort of dulcimer. Hebenstreit died in 1750 and the next year Binder was appointed pantaleonist at the court. However, Binder's employer, Friedrich August III, was far more interested in the harpsichord. His personal library included 343 harpsichord concertos. This explains why music for harpsichord - concertos and sonatas - take a central place in Binder's oeuvre which comprises exclusively instrumental music. The prominent role of the harpsichord also manifests itself in his chamber music: most of his sonatas are scored for an obbligato harpsichord and one or more melody instruments. That is also the case with the Sonata in D of 1771. Its sequence of movements was to become the standard in the last quarter of the century, as it opens with an allegro, which is followed by an andante, and closes with a menuet. Counterpoint plays a minor role in this piece; instead there are passages in parallel thirds and sixths. Notable is that the first and second movements include a written-out cadenza.

Pauline Sachse plays a viola by Paolo Maggini of 1610, which for this project has been strung with gut strings. From this one may conclude that this instrument is also not in unaltered state. However, it sounds differently from the instrument Roger Myers plays and that is probably the result of the style of playing. Pauline Sachse is not a specialist in early music either, but she has worked with people close to historical performance practice, such as Isabelle Faust and Daniel Harding. She obviously has given the various aspects of performance practice much thought: she plays in the temperament developed by Johann Georg Neidhardt and the pitch is a=415 Hz.

The sonata by CPE Bach allows for a direct comparison between the two artists, and Sachse's interpretation is superior to Myers's. Her tone is stronger, there is a more marked differentation between good and bad notes, and overall Sachse's performance is more rhetorical. She largely avoids vibrato and in general the balance between viola and harpsichord is more satisfying. In the Bach sonata I still think that the harpsichord is slightly underexposed, even though it has more presence than in Myers's recording. Andreas Hecker is an excellent harpsichordist, who delivers apt support and a spirited performance of the keyboard part in Binder's sonata.

Undoubtedly these two discs are very interesting and important additions to the discography. The differences in interpretation notwithstanding, they are well worth being investigated, and one has to hope that more solo pieces for the viola from the 18th century will appear on disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Céline Frisch
Roger Myers
Pauline Sachse

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