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"Barbarian Beauty - Concertos for viola da gamba"

Vittorio Ghielmi, viola da gambaa; Dorothee Oberlinger, recorderb; Mayumi Hirasi, violinc; Marcel Comendant, cymbalond
Il Suonar Parlante Orchestrae
Dir: Vittorio Ghielmi

rec: Sept 27 - 30, 2010, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
Passacaille - 972 ( 2011) (57'44")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I
Cover & track-list

Marcel COMENDANT Marcel's Farewelld; Marcel's Postludiumd; Marcel's Praeludiumd; Johann Gottlieb GRAUN (1702-1771): Concerto for viola da gamba, strings and bc in Dae; Giuseppe TARTINI (1692-1770): Concerto for viola da gamba, strings and bc in Aae; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Concerto for recorder, viola da gamba, strings and bc in a minor (TWV 52,a1)abe; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto for violin, violoncello all'inglese, strings and bc in A (RV 546)ace

Alessandro Tampieri, Mayumi Hirasaki, Nicolas Penel, violin; Laurent Galliano, viola; Marco Testori, cello; Moritz Baltzer, double bass; Marcel Comendant, cymbalon; Shalev Ad-el, harpsichord

The title of this disc is almost exactly the same as that of a disc by the Holland Baroque Society which I reviewed some time ago. It refers to a quotation from Georg Philipp Telemann in which he expresses his admiration for the popular music he heard in Poland. On their disc the Holland Baroque Society explored the connections between this repertoire and Telemann's own compositions. That seems to be a fashionable subject these days. Although this disc's title also refers to it, the subject plays only a minor role in the programme.

It relates only to the first piece, the Concerto in a minor by Telemann, which reflects a clear influence of folk music. It is scored for the unusual combination of recorder and viola da gamba as solo instruments. In Telemann's oeuvre it isn't that unusual: such a scoring also appears in his chamber music. More surprising is that the viola da gamba was used in a concerto at all, especially at that time. It was one of the main instruments of the 17th century, but at the time composers started to write solo concertos it was in the process of disappearing from the mainstream. Another factor which explains the small number of solo concertos for the gamba is the fact that gamba playing was under strong French influence, whereas the form of the concerto was Italian in origin and character. That raises various questions regarding the repertoire of this disc and its performance.

For most of his life Johann Gottlieb Graun acted as concertmaster of the court orchestra of the Prussian King Frederick the Great. One of the members of the orchestra was Ludwig Christian Hesse. He was the son of Ernst Christian, who for many years was gambist at the court in Darmstadt, and had been a pupil of Marin Marais and Antoine Forqueray. Ludwig Christian received his first lessons from his father and worked for some years in the court chapel in Darmstadt as well. In Berlin the gamba was still highly appreciated. Frederick the Great's nephew, Crown Prince Frederick William II, learned to play the gamba from the age of 13, and corresponded with Forqueray. From 1761 until 1771 Hesse was a member of the Crownprince's private chapel. Graun composed five solo concertos for Hesse which reflect his technical prowess. One wonders how Hesse will have played them, as his education was strongly French orientated. That is also an issue in regard to the way Vittorio Ghielmi plays this part. The features one associates with French gamba music - elegance and refinement - are generally lacking here. Instead we hear a fully Italian way of playing, much in the style we have become used to from modern Italian baroque orchestras. That in itself is not meant as criticism - it is simply an observation. That said, I am not really satisfied with the way Ghielmi plays. The middle movement, with the tempo indication 'largo', comes off best. The fast movements are a little awkward and choppy, also because of the tendency to play staccato, and rather loud to boot. The concerto by Telemann suffers from the same features, and the balance between the recorder and the orchestra - even though it is a rather small ensemble - is less than ideal.

In Italy the viola da gamba hardly played a role in the first half of the 18th century. Vivaldi used it in one aria in his opera L'incoronazione di Dario, but otherwise he avoided the instrument. The Concerto in A (RV 546) seems to be the only exception. It is scored for violin and a violoncello all'inglese. This is interpreted as a reference to the viola da gamba, which at that time was still quite popular in England. The largest part of Tartini's instrumental music comprises sonatas and solo concertos for his own instrument, the violin. Interestingly Johann Gottlieb Graun was one of his pupils. There are two concertos with a solo part for a low string instrument. In the manuscript of the Concerto in A there is no indication as to which instrument Tartini had in mind. In his liner-notes Vittorio Ghielmi writes: "A similar concerto in D major, preserved in Vienna, bears the posthumous inscription 'per la viola'. In both cases the tessitura excludes the classical viola or cello." Therefore we hear here a performance on the viola da gamba. It has at least once been recorded with a cello, by Pietro Bosna with L'Arte del Arco (Dynamic, 2001). Here the middle movement made me raise my eyebrows because of the frequent glissandi in the solo part.

I need to say something about the contributions of Marcel Comendant, who plays the cymbalon, probably better known as dulcimer (that is the term under which it is discussed in New Grove). This is another connection to the world of popular music. Comendant plays a short introduction to Telemann's concerto and adds a postlude. He also is involved in the realisation of the basso continuo in that concerto, albeit only in the tutti episodes. There are references to such an instrument in 17th- and 18th-century sources, and there was even music specifically written for it. But what role it played in the 'art music' of Telemann and his time is hard to say. The liner-notes mention Pantaleon Hebenstreit who was a virtuoso on the instrument. They both were at the same time in Eisenach, and Telemann explicitly praised his virtuosity and his mastery of the French style. Therefore the use of the dulcimer in Telemann's concerto has some plausibility. It is very questionable, though, that the instrument was frequently played. I don't know if any research in this field has taken place, but it would certainly be very interesting to know whether there were any other players of the dulcimer in Telemann's time and environment.

All in all, this is definitely a highly interesting disc. The quality of the music is beyond doubt, and the concerto by Graun is recorded here for the first time - according to Ghielmi. It also raises various questions in regard to the style of performance and scoring. That in itself is not a bad thing. Unfortunately the performances are only partially convincing and musically satisfying. Whose idea was it to print the track-list in blue on a black background? Weren't we supposed to read it?

Johan van Veen ( 2012)

Relevant links:

Vittorio Ghielmi

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