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Eugène GODECHARLE (1742 - 1798): Sei Quartetti per Harpa, Violino, Viola e Basso Op. IV

Société Lunaire

rec: Nov 6 - 9, 2022, Berlin, Studio Ölbergkirche
Ramée - RAM 2207 (© 2023) (73'26")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Quartetto I in A; Quartetto II in F; Quartetto III in B flat; Quartetto IV in C; Quartetto V in G; Quartetto VI in E flat

Maximilian Ehrhardt, harp; Péter Barczi, violin; Nadine Henrichs, viola; Jule Hinrichsen, cello

The disc that is to be reviewed here is a token of the growing interest in the music that was written in the Austrian Netherlands - today known as Belgium - during the 18th century. That has taken a while: even in the time that Belgian performers played a dominant role in the early music scene - the 1970s and 1980s - this kind of repertoire was hardly given any attention. Recent recordings show the quality of much that was written in the course of the 18th century.

Until 1713 the Southern Netherlands were under Spanish rule. Part of the Peace of Utrecht of 1713 was that it came under the reign of Austria. During the 18th century an improvement in the economic situation led to a rise in the level of music-making. In the field of religious music several composers were active whose works are being rediscovered, like Charles-Joseph Van Helmont and the members of the Fiocco family, but also Hercule-Pierre Bréhy and Henri-Jacques De Croes. There was also much activity in the reign of theatrical music which shows a strong French influence. De Croes was also an important composer of instrumental music, especially symphonies, which unfortunately are all lost. Another composer in this field was Pierre Van Maldere.
,br> The latter is one of the better-known composers and some of his works are available on disc, but Eugène Godecharle is a largely unknown quantity. He was born in Brussels, was educated as a violinist and was a member of the chapel of Charles of Lorraine. He also occupied the post of maître de musique at the church of Saint-Géry. In 1786 he unsuccesfully tried to succeed De Croes as leader of the Royal Chapel; he became first violinist in 1794. His compositional oeuvre is rather small and consists of solo and trio sonatas, quartets with concertante keyboard, harpsichord sonatas and symphonies. The first time I encountered him was on a disc of Project Boussu. It included two of the trio sonatas from his Op. 3.

The present disc comprises the entire Op. 4, consisting of six quartets for harp or harpsichord, violin, viola and cello. The scoring reflects the fashion of the time: numerous quartets for a particular instrument - keyboard, flute, oboe, clarinet - and string trio were written, mostly intended for performance by amateurs. The fact that Godecharle intended the first part for the harp attests to the increasing popularity of this instrument.

The harp has played an important part in music in the course of history. In the early 18th century it may have taken a back seat: in the oeuvre of the likes of Bach, Telemann and Graupner one does not find any reference to the harp, and they did not write solo parts for it. Whether it was used in the basso continuo, as - for instance - in Italy during the 17th century, is hard to say. However, in the second half of the 18th century its popularity strongly increased, also thanks to the technical improvements which made it suitable for the music written at the time. Paris was one of the centres of composing for and playing of the harp, with Queen Marie Antoinette as its most famous exponent. On the other hand, the fact that Godecharle mentioned the harpsichord as an alternative, attests to the fact that the harp was not that common at the time, because it was quite an expensive instrument, which only the upper echelons of society could afford.

The fact that Godecharle's oeuvre includes a number of technically challenging harp parts attests to his own skills. Apparently the harp was also quite popular in the Austrian Netherlands at the time, as Charles Burney noted when he visited Brussels in 1772, adding some notes about technical aspects: "The harp is very much played on by the ladies here, and at Paris. It is a sweet and becoming instrument, and, by means of the pedals for the half notes, is less cumbrous and unwieldy than our double Welsh harp. The compass is from double Bb to F in altissimo; it is capable of great expression, and of executing whatever can be played on the harpsichord. There are but thirty-three strings upon it, which, except the last, are the mere natural notes of the diatonic scale; the rest are made by the feet." The pedal mechanism he refers to was an invention of Jacob Hochbrucker (1673-1763) from Donauwörth in Bavaria.

"Hochbrucker made it possible to use chromatic notes and to modulate into other keys with mechanical help: a complex mechanism hidden in the instrument was activated by pressing the pedals at the foot of the harp, which caused the active length of individual strings to be shortened and thus raised by a semitone." (booklet) Jacob's son Simon introduced the pedal harp in Brussels in 1739. Godecharle dedicated his quartets with harp to the Contessa d'Ursel Principessa d'Arenberg. This does not necessarily mean that she played the harp herself, but makes it likely that the instrument was played in her musical salon.

The six quartets are all in three movements. They open with an allegro or a moderato. The second movement is either a rondo (quartets 1 to 4) or a minuet (quartets 5 and 6). The last movement of four quartets is an allegro. Two quartets are especially notable. The first is the Quartet No. 3: the second movement includes a written-out cadenza for both harp and violin, one of the few from the 18th century, as Maximilian Ehrhardt, the ensemble's harpist, writes in his liner-notes. The quartet ends with a fugetta, which is remarkable in a time that counterpoint played a very minor role. The second is the Quartet No. 6, as its last movement is an allemande. This dance frequently appears in baroque music, but seldom appears in compositions from the second half of the 18th century. In these quartets the two upper parts - harp and violin - play a dominant role, although the viola and the cello are more than just accompaniment.

These quartets are very well-written and quite interesting. Chamber music with harp is still not that often performed and recorded these days, and this disc is a substantial addition to the discography. It is also an important contribution to our knowledge of the musical landscape in the Austrian Netherlands in the classical era. The ensemble Société Lunaire takes its name from the Lunar Society, a group of intellectuals, philosophers and artists founded in 1765 in Birmingham. Its members are playing in several distinguished ensembles and orchestras. The website shows that it focuses on music from the late baroque to the classical period, and in particular composers of the generation of the sons of Bach. The present disc seems their first recording, and it is a very good and promising one. The playing is excellent throughout, and the ensemble is immaculate. Maximilian Ehrhardt's harp playing is a delight; he plays a copy of a harp by Renault & Chatelain from the second half of the 18th century (an original is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Péter Barczi, Nadine Henrichs and Jule Hinrichsen are his equals on violin, viola and cello.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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