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Georg Wilhelm GRUBER (1729 - 1796): "Concerti per fortepiano"

Arthur Schoonderwoerd, tangent piano
Ensemble Cristofori
Dir: Arthur Schoonderwoerd

rec: August 28 - 30, 2009, Triesdorf, Altes Reithaus
PanClassics - PC 10231 (© 2011) (50'42")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & tracklist

Concerto I for keyboard and orchestra in D [1]; Concerto II for keyboard and orchestra in F [1]; Sonata IV for keyboard, transverse flute/violin and cello in Da [2]

Sources: [1] Due Concerti per Cembalo obligato Violino primo, Violino secondo, Viola, due Flauti traversi, due Corni, Violoncello e Violone, 1770; [2] Sonate a Trè cioè Cembalo obligato Violino o Traverso obligato e Violoncello accompagnato, 1780

Annie Laflammea, Monika Scholand, transverse flute; Balduin Wetter, Andreas Hengl, horn; Luigi Philippi, Jochen Grüner, violin; Ulrike Krutschnitt, viola; Esmele de Vries, cello; Szilárd Chereji, violone

The era in music history between, say, Bach and Mozart is still only sparsely explored. Only a handful of composers from the Mannheim School are appearing on concert programmes, and only some of the composers with whom Frederick the Great surrounded himself are known to the music-loving public at large. And then we are talking about two of the main centres of music-making at the time. This disc sheds light on a composer who worked in Nuremberg.

In the 16th century the city had become an important centre of music printing. In the next century it developed into one of Germany's most prominent centres of music as well. Names which are associated with Nuremberg are Hans-Leo Hassler, Johann Pachelbel, Sigmund Theophil Staden and Johann Philipp Krieger. Many of the most prominent musicians of the city were keyboard players and in particular organinists. In his liner-notes of this disc Michael Kämmle states: "It is not an overestimation to refer to the Nürnberg Clavier School which had been established by the city's organists during the 17th century and through the special efforts of musicians from the Stadtmusik developed in the 18th century into the phenomenon termed by Franz Krautwurst as the Nürnberger Cembalokonzertschule (harpsichord concerto school)." Several names of 18th-century composers can be associated with this school, whose names don't ring a bell with most music lovers: Cornelius Heinrich Dretzel, Johann Matthäus Leffloth, Wilhelm Gottfried Enderle and Johann Jacob Paul Küffner. Only Johann Agrell enjoys some fame today. Georg Wilhelm Gruber also ranks among the unknown quantities of the Nuremberg keyboard school.

Gruber was born in Nuremberg and entered the prestigious Sebald School. He turned out to be highly gifted and was advised to study theology. But from an early age Gruber showed great talent and ambition in music: at the age of seven he became a chorister in the school choir and in this field his talents were even greater than his academic skills. He became a pupil of Cornelius Heinrich Dretzel, who - according to Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart - had been a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach. He received composition lessons from a pupil of Johann David Heinichen and he also took lessons at the violin which was to become his main instrument.

Gruber made some journeys through Germany, and visited Frankfurt am Main and Mainz, and heard an opera by Hasse in Dresden. It was Hasse who advised him to take lessons with Joseph Umstatt. Gruber returned to Nuremberg where he would stay the rest of his life. Several prestigious posts were offered to him, for instance in Bamberg, Ansbach and Strasbourg, but he declined. When Johann Agrell died in 1765 Gruber succeeded him as Director cori musici whose task was the direction of the chapel of the city. In this capacity he was responsible for the performance of the music for Sundays and the feastdays of the ecclesiastical year. Some of his own sacred compositions are only known with their titles as almost everything he has written in this genre has been lost. Two collections with songs for voice and keyboard were printed.

The two concertos which are performed on this disc were printed in 1770. The are called Concerti per Cembalo obligato and were likely written to be performed by the chapel of which Gruber was the director. In that case it is justified to perform them with a small ensemble as the Ensemble Cristofori. The chapel consisted of only six players - Gruber included - an organist and two singers. Michael Kämmerle assumes the organist and the singers were also able to play instruments. Another possibility would be that for certain performances players from elsewhere were attracted. This was certainly not uncommon at the time. The scoring is for keyboard, two violins, viola, cello, violone, two transverse flutes and two horns. Stylistically they show various influences, probably most of the Mannheim School, and also show some traces of the Empfindsamkeit. The choice of the solo instrument in keyboard music of the third quarter of the 18th century is always a quite tricky affair. At that time several keyboard instruments coexisted, in particular the harpsichord and the fortepiano. Arthur Schoonderwoerd has opted for a kind of 'compromise', as it were. He plays on a tangent piano, "a keyboard instrument whose strings are struck by freely moving slips of wood resembling harpsichord jacks rather than by hinged or pivoted hammers", according to New Grove. The sound is strongly reminiscent of the harpsichord, but it has the dynamic possibilities of the fortepiano, and that makes it most suitable to realise the dynamic differences which the music seems to require. The two concertos are interspersed by the fourth of the seven sonatas from 1780 which are scored for keyboard, violin or transverse flute and cello. In this performance the flute is used which is often playing colla parte with the upper part of the keyboard, but sometimes also goes its own ways. The cello only supports the bass part of the keyboard.

This disc is a most interesting contribution to our knowledge of the music from the time between the baroque and the classical era. It shows that all sorts of things were going on in places which don't receive as much attention as Hamburg, Berlin or Mannheim. The music by Gruber is of good quality and despite the influences from the main fashions of his time it shows that Gruber had a voice of his own. Arthur Schoonderwoerd plays the solo parts impressively, with a great feeling for the style of the period. He brings the best out of the tangent piano which is a most intriguing instrument. The ensemble is perfect and the various instrumental parts are well executed. Annie Laflamme deserves special mention for the performance of the flute part in the sonata.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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