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"Schirokkos Seereisen" (Schirokko's Journeys at Sea)

Ensemble Schirokko Hamburg
Dir: Rachel Harris

rec: Feb 2008, Stade, St Cosmae et Damianae
ambitus - amb 96 926 (72'01")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & tracklist

Jean-Féry REBEL (1666-1747): Les Elémens [1]; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Overture in C 'Wassermusik / Hamburger Ebb' und Flut' (TWV 55,C3); Francisco VALLS (1665/71): Composición enarmónica para instrumentos de arco [2]; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto for recorder, oboe, bassoon, strings and bc in F 'La Tempesta di Mare' (RV 570); Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in D 'Il Gardellino' (RV 428)

Sources: [1] Jesan-Féry Rebel, Simphonie Nouvelle, 1737; [2] Francisco Valls, Mapa Armónico Prático, 1742

Inge Marg, Margret Schrietter, recorder, oboe; Daniela Lieb, transverse flute, piccolo; Jennifer Harris, bassoon; Rachel Harris, Adam Lord, Gonzalo Beltran, Lotta Suvanto, Ina Keller, Marie Verweyen, violin; Florian Schulte, Katarjina Jerzewska, viola; Anna Carewe, cello; Barbara Messmer, viola da gamba; Anne Hofmann, double bass; Andrea Baur, lute, percussion; Evelyn Laib, harpsichord

For a relatively new ensemble - Schirokko was founded in 2007 - it is not to be recommended to perform or record music which is well-known and easily available in various recordings. Therefore the choice of music for this disc is rather surprising: with the exception of the piece by Francisco Valls all compositions are familiar. There is something which sets this disc apart, though: the music is all part of a concept which is partly explained by the title, in translation "Schirokko's Journeys at Sea". This explains pieces like Vivaldi's Concerto La Tempesta di Mare and Telemann's Overture in C. But the liner-notes reveal that the "journeys at sea" shouldn't be taken litterally. It is rather a metaphor for a journey through the mythological description of the creation of the world as described by Hesiod in his Theogony.

This explains the start of the programme with the famous ballet suite Les Elémens by Jean-Féry Rebel. It starts with a depiction of the chaos before the creation, and the next movements illustrate the four elements, earth, water, air and fire. The suite also refers to birds which led to the decision to mix the movements of Rebel's suite with Vivaldi's Concerto Il Gardellino (consistently spelt Il Cardellino in the booklet). Two of the elements, air and water, are then singled out with Vivaldi's Concerto Il Tempesta di Mare. This is followed by Composición enarmónica by Valls, and after that Rebel's suite is concluded. The programme ends with Telemann's Overture which relates to Hamburg's status as seaport, the main reason for its prosperity. But in this piece also mythological figures turn up, like Neptune and Thetis. With it the circle closes as in Hesiod's myth the gods are created from the four elements which are figuring in Rebel's suite.

It is undeniable that ancient mythology played an important role in baroque music. Numerous operas and cantatas take their subjects from it. But it is more than questionable whether "Greek mythology forms the greatest pool of European culture in its openness, differentiation, and world diversity", as Volker Hagedorn states in his liner-notes. On balance the Christian faith has had much stronger and more lasting influence on the development of European culture. And as often as mythological characters turn up in music and writings, it is very unlikely anyone really believed they existed. They were rather used as metaphors. Only recently I found a quotation from the theorist Johannes Tinctoris (c1435 - 1511) who wrote about some composers that their works "are so redolent with sweetness that … they are to be considered most worthy not only for men and demigods, but even for the immortal gods themselves". That is no indication whatsoever that for him the demigods and gods of ancient mythology were reality.

But let us not dwell further on this subject. The concept of this programme has been convincingly worked out. At first I was sceptical about the mixture of Rebel and Vivaldi, but it turns out that they match quite well. Maybe that isn't so surprising after all: Rebel was influenced by the Italian style, and Vivaldi's two concertos included here are just as theatrical as Rebel's suite. From a strictly historical point of view one could argue that Rebel should be played at a lower pitch than Vivaldi. I also think Rebel's suite would be better off with a larger ensemble than Schirokko, playing with just six violins and two violas. Telemann's Overture in C is well played, although I think the recording by Musica antiqua Köln is hard to surpass.

The most curious piece on this disc - and probably recorded here for the first time - is the Composición enarmónica para instrumentos de arco by Francisco Valls. It is from his treatise Mapa Armónico which was written in 1741/42 but never published in Valls' lifetime. It found wide circulation, though, and deals with many aspects of music, like harmony, counterpoint and performance practice. Valls had caused considerable controversy with his Missa Scala aretina of 1702. The piece which Schirokko has chosen must have made many readers raise their eyebrows. It is an example of how to compose in quartertones, "a 'composición enarmónica' long before Ives and Boulez", as Hagedorn writes. "But still thousands of years after the first theoretical remarks on quartertones - the ancient Greeks had already had their thoughts". It is a most peculiar piece indeed, far more out of step with the time than even 'Le Chaos' from Rebel's ballet suite. I don't quite understand its inclusion in this programme, though. The connection to ancient Greek culture must be the key.

On balance I am more positive about this disc than I expected. The general level of playing is good, and I would especially mention the contributions of Daniela Lieb on the transverse flute and the piccolo. If you are open to an unusual concept you will enjoy this disc, even if you have already most pieces in your collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Schirokko Hamburg

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