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"Music for Viola da Gamba"

Wieland Kuijken, viola da gamba

rec: Feb 1993
Regis Records - RRC1346 (R) [2011] (67'24")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787): Adagio in d minor (WKO 209); Allegro in d minor (WKO 207); Piece in d minor (WKO 205); Piece in d minor (WKO 206); Piece in d minor (WKO. 208); Tobias HUME (c1579-1645): My mistresse hath a pritty thing [2]; Touch me lightly [2]; Diego ORTIZ (c1510-c1570): Recercada I [1]; Recercada II [1]; Recercada III [1]; Recercada IV [1]; Johannes SCHENCK (1660-after 1710): Sonata VI in a minor, op. 9,6 [4]; Christopher SIMPSON (c1602/06-1669): Prelude in D [3]; Prelude in e minor [3]; Prelude in B flat [3]; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Sonata in D (TWV 40,1) [5]

Sources: [1] Diego Ortiz, Trattado de glosas, 1553; [2] Tobias Hume, The First Part of Ayres, 1605; [3] Christopher Simpson, The Division-Violist, or An Introduction to the Playing upon a Ground, 1659; [4] Johannes Schenck, L'echo du Danube, op. 9, 1704; [5] Georg Philipp Telemann, Der getreue Music-Meister, 1728–9

The viola da gamba, both as a solo instrument and in ensemble, played an important role in music history from the renaissance until the 18th century. Italy was the first country where it became marginalised. It practically disappeared during the second half of the 17th century, being replaced by the cello. In other countries it continued to play a substantial role. The present disc bears witness to that, although Wieland Kuijken concentrates on Germany and England, and ignores France. The earliest music dates from the 16th century (Ortiz), the latest from the third quarter of the 18th century (Abel). The gamba was the only string instrument for which a considerable number of solo pieces were written, without a basso continuo accompaniment. In comparison the repertoire for unaccompanied violin or cello is rather small.

The pieces which have been selected are not chronologically ordered. Kuijken begins with the latest works: five pieces by Carl Friedrich Abel. He was born into a musical family: his father Christian Ferdinand, a violinist and gambist, was a member of the court chapel in Cöthen when Bach was Kapellmeister. The latter may have written his three gamba sonatas for him. When Christian Friedrich died in 1737 his son moved to Leipzig and became part of the Bach household. In 1758 he moved to London, where he soon would meet Bach's youngest son Johann Christian, with whom he organized the so-called Bach-Abel concerts. There can be little doubt that he played some of his own music for the gamba during these concerts. There are suggestions that the five pieces in D minor which are recorded here were written for the painter Thomas Gainsborough, who was a friend of Abel's. If that is the case this amateur gambist must have been very skilled as they are of considerable virtuosity, with arpeggios, multiple-stopping and wide leaps. The five pieces take the form of a suite; the first has the character of a prelude of an improvisatory character, dominated by arpeggios.

There is no multiple-stopping in the four pieces by Diego Ortiz. These come from the second part of his Trattado de glosas (1553), a treatise on the art of ornamentation, so-called diferencias. The pieces which are included in this treatise are about breaking up a melodic line in various ways rather than the harmonic capabilities of the gamba. Largely the same goal has The Division-Violist (1659) of Christopher Simpson, who also includes compositions of his own to illustrate his instructions. The three preludes are so-called mixt divisions, a combination of breaking up a melodic line over a ground-bass and dividing a ground into short sections. Also from England is Tobias Hume, the probably best-known musical maverick in English history. He was a gambist but also a soldier in various armies. The two collections of music which were printed in 1605 and 1607 respectively include dances, songs and programmatic pieces. They show that he must have been a highly-skilled player.

The two remaining pieces are by German composers, although Johannes Schenck spent the most part of his life in Amsterdam. Here he soon established himself as an important member of the cultural élite. It seems that their financial support gave him the opportunity to publish a remarkable number of collections of music. He was by far the most widely published Dutch composer of the 17th century. His printed oeuvre includes five collections of music for viola da gamba. Some of his sonatas are for gamba and bc, some for gamba solo; in others the basso continuo can be added ad libitum. The six sonatas which were printed as his op. 9 in 1704, under the title L'Echo du Danube, show the influence of the Italian violin sonata. At the time of composition he worked in Düsseldorf, at the court of the Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm II. The latter had great admiration for Corelli, who dedicated his concerti grossi to him. It is likely that here Schenck became acquainted with the Italian sonata style. The Sonata VI in a minor begins with a sequence of adagio-allegro-adagio, which is followed by presto and adagio, four 'arias' of contrasting character, and closes with a swinging giga.

Lastly Telemann: he wrote for virtually every instrument which was common in his time. A number of his compositions include parts for the gamba, and he even composed an overture for gamba, strings and bc. The Sonata in D was printed in his Der getreue Music-Meister, a series of periodicals with music which was published in 1728-29. It is a specimen of the mixed style which Telemann preferred. The structure is modelled after the Italian sonata da chiesa. Remarkable is the third movement which has the form of a recitative and aria.

Regis reissues recordings which were released earlier on other labels. The 'booklet' - if that is the proper name for a sheet of just four pages - includes programme-notes which are to the point, but omits any further information about the time or place where the recording was made, let alone the identity of the instrument which Wieland Kuijken plays. I searched the internet and learned that the original recording dates from 1993 and was released by the Japanese label Denon. I don't know how widely available it was at the time. It has never crossed my path, though, and this is the first time that I have heard it. I am glad that it is available again as we have here some masterful performances of one of the pioneers of the viola da gamba. Kuijken's playing is technically brilliant, and his interpretation explores the character of the various pieces to the full. In particular the pieces by Abel and Schenck will probably be new to many music-lovers. They belong among the best which have been written for the instrument, and Kuijken brings a convincing and eloquent performance. In Telemann's sonata he shows how a recitative should be sung.

In short, this is a disc no lover of the gamba would want to miss.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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