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Dieterich Buxtehude & Philipp Heinrich Erlebach: Sonatas for violin and viola da gamba

[I] Philipp Heinrich ERLEBACH (1657 - 1714): "Complete Trio Sonatas"
rec: April 2018, Centeilles (F), Eglise Notre-Dame
Ricercar - RIC 393 (© 2019) (69'02")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata I in D; Sonata II in e minor; Sonata III in A; Sonata IV in C; Sonata V in B flat; Sonata VI in F

Source: VI Sonate à Violino & Viola da Gamba col suo Basso Continuo, 1694

Marie Rouquié, violin; François Joubert-Caillet, Sarah Van Oudenhove [bc], viola da gamba; Miguel Henry, archlute; Yoann Moulin, harpsichord, organ

[II] Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637 - 1707): "Trio Sonatas Op. 1"
rec: Oct 26 - 28, 2016, London, St Jude's Church
Alpha - 367 (© 2017) (59'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata I in F, op. 1,1 (BuxWV 252); Sonata II in G, op. 1,2 (BuxWV 253); Sonata III in a minor, op. 1,3 (BuxWV 254); Sonata IV in B flat, op. 1,4 (BuxWV 255); Sonata V in C, op. 1,5 (BuxWV 256); Sonata VI in d minor, op. 1,6 (BuxWV 257); Sonata VII in e minor, op. 1,7 (BuxWV 258)
Sources: VII Suonate à doi, Violino & Viola da gamba, con Cembalo, 1694

Sophie Gent, violin; Jonathan Manson, viola da gamba; Thomas Dunford, lute; Jonathan Cohen, harpsichord

The two discs under review here include music written by two composers who worked in different regions of the German-speaking world. For most of his life, Buxtehude worked as organist in Lübeck, and in this capacity he was one of the main representatives of the north German organ school. Erlebach was born in East Frisia, also part of northern Germany, and received his earliest musical education probably at the East Frisian court. Supported by a recommendation of the court he went to Thuringia, where from 1681 until his death he acted as Kapellmeister at the court of Count Albert Anton von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt. Even so, they both composed sonatas for the same scoring: violin, viola da gamba and basso continuo.

This was quite common at the time. As Jérôme Lejeune observes in his liner-notes to the Ricercar disc, the violin and the viola da gamba represent the two main styles in Europe: the Italian and the French respectively. That said, the viola da gamba was certainly not exclusively associated with France. It was one of the main participants in consort music played across Europe during the 16th and early 17th centuries. With time it developed into a solo instrument, adopting several of the features of music for other instruments, such as the violin. That can be observed in Italy, where composers wrote diminutions for the viola bastarda, as well as in England, where Christopher Simpson published his pieces for solo viol.

However, in the case of Erlebach it is certainly justified to see the influence of the French style in his sonatas. In the second half of the 17th century many German aristocrats were under the spell of the splendour of Louis XIV's court. They liked to listen to music of the kind which was played there, for instance by Lully. Because of that various German composers wrote music in that same style, and Erlebach was one of them. That comes to the fore in his VI Ouvertures in the French manner which were published in 1693. It is notable that these are scored for five parts according to the line-up of the French opera orchestra (dessus, haute-contre, taille, quinte, basse).

Erlebach was one of the earliest composers in Germany who aimed at a mixture of the French and Italian styles with traditional German counterpoint. The VI Sonate a Violino e Viola da gamba col suo basso continuo, which were printed in Nuremberg in 1694, bear witness to that. Apparently Erlebach wanted them to be considered Italian by nature. His name was italianized at the title-page, and he apologised for the fact that - due to time pressure during the printing process - "some mistakes contrary to the Italian dialect slipped into the titles in which, in stead of Allemande, Courante, Saraband, Variatio and Gigue, should have appeared Allamanda, Corrente, Sarabanda e Variata and Giga". However, there are certainly French elements in these sonatas. The Sonata III, for instance, ends with a ciaconne, as was customary in many French instrumental works. The title of this movement is a curious mixture of Italian and French in itself. Moreover, in five of the sonatas the sarabande is followed by a variatio which seems inspired by the French habit of adding a double to a dance movement.

In addition to the prominent role of counterpoint, two features of these sonatas specifically connect them to the German/Austrian/Bohemian violin school. The first is that in two sonatas (III and IV) the technique of scordatura is required. This was often used in music from Bohemia and Austria; Biber is the best-known example of a composer who used this technique frequently. The second is that Sonata VI requires the use of a violino piccolo. Although this instrument was known in Italy (Monteverdi uses it in his opera L'Orfeo) and such instruments were made by Italian violin makers, it seems not to have been commonly used there. Most specimens of music for the violino piccolo are of German origin.

In recent years I have heard and reviewed several recordings of these sonatas. They all had their merits, but neither of them fully satisfied me. That is different here. There is a good balance between the violin and the viola da gamba, which is of great importance, as Erlebach treats them on equal footing. There is some nice dynamic shading and the tempi are just right. Thanks to the articulation and the differentiation between good and bad notes, the rhythmic pulse comes off perfectly. The members of L'Achéron are all excellent performers who are not afraid to explore the theatrical elements in these sonatas, but are also able to play with wonderful subtlety, such as in the ciaccone mentioned above.

In short, this is the best performance of Erlebach's sonatas that I have heard.

In 1694, the year Erlebach's sonatas came from the press, Dieterich Buxtehude published his Op. 1, a set of seven sonatas in the same scoring: violin, viola da gamba and basso continuo. It was to be followed by a second set of seven sonatas in the same scoring in 1696. However, the 1694 set was not his first collection of instrumental music: in 1684 the publication of another collection was advertised, but this has never been found. It is impossible to say whether it has been lost or perhaps never printed. The title is interesting because of the reference to its use for the church and the 'table', the latter meaning that they could be played during dinner. It is reasonable to assume that the sonatas op. 1 and op. 2 were written with the same purpose in mind.

The sonatas may have been played by the members of the Ratsmusik in Lübeck, an ensemble of highly skilled and versatile musicians. They played at official events, but also in the private homes of wealthy citizens, and participated in the Abendmusiken which took place in the Advent period. Another possibility is that Buxtehude himself played his sonatas with his colleagues and friends from Hamburg, Johann Theile and Johann Adam Reincken. It is notable that several composers from Hamburg, among them Reincken, wrote sonatas of the same kind.

Unlike Erlebach's sonatas, Buxtehude's sonatas have no fixed form; they consist rather of a variable number of sections of varied length, character and metre. Quick succession of contrasting sections is one of the features of the stylus phantasticus which had its roots in Italian music of the early 17th century and left its mark not only on music for instrumental ensemble but also on keyboard works. The German theorist Johann Mattheson stated that "this style is the most free and unrestrained manner of composing, singing, and playing that one can imagine, for one hits first on this idea and then upon that one, since one is bound neither to words nor to melody, only to harmony, so that the singer and player can display his skill". Buxtehude's sonatas also bear witness to the growing influence of the Italian virtuosity in composing for and playing of the violin, which had been brought to Germany by Carlo Farina, who for some time worked in Dresden and who laid the foundations of the German violin school.

An important difference between the sonatas by Erlebach and those by Buxtehude is that the latter don't include dance movements. They consist of a sequence of contrasting sections with tempo indications as largo, allegro, adagio, lento and vivace. They are mostly not formally separated and largely follow each other attacca. That was probably the reason that they were omitted in the booklet to the recording by Arcangelo. I find that regrettable as these indications help to understand the structure and rhetorical construction of these sonatas.

Buxtehude's sonatas are better known and more frequently played than Erlebach's. Over the years I have encountered several recordings which I liked. Overall, I have enjoyed the performances delivered by the members of Arcangelo. Sophie Gent is a fine violinist and shows here to know how to bring this music to life. There is some good dynamic differentiation and the contrasts in tempo are worked out well. However, I am not satisfied with the balance within the ensemble. That goes especially for the basso continuo: the lute is clearly audible and often overshadows the harpsichord, which has too little presence. The participation of a lute in these sonatas is questionable anyway. These days performers seem to take it for granted that a plucked instrument should be involved, without bothering about historical evidence. The balance between violin and viola da gamba could have been better as well.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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