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"Forgotten chamber works with oboe from the Court of Prussia"

Notturna
Dir: Christopher Palameta

rec: July 13 - 16, 2017, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19075821552 ( 2018) (59'32")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Gottlieb GRAUN (1703-1771): Quintet for harpsichord, transverse flute, oboe, viola and cello in a minor (GraunWV Av,XIV,14); Johann Gottlieb JANITSCH (1708-1763): Sonata for oboe, violin and bc in G; Sonata for oboe, violin and bc in a minor; Sonata for transverse flute, oboe, viola and bc in B flat, op. VI; Johann Gottfried KRAUSE (1717-1770): Sonata for oboe, violin and bc in d minor

Jan Van den Borre, transverse flute; Christopher Palameta, oboe; Catherine Martin, violin, viola; Emily Robinson, cello; Brice Sailly, harpsichord

The chapel of Frederick the Great of Prussia, which he founded when he was still Crown Prince, was one of the main musical institutions in Germany in the mid-18th century. The list of its members reads like a Who's who of German music life of the time. Some of its members are still very well known, such as the Benda brothers, the Graun brothers, Johann Joachim Quantz and, of course, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. One of its lesser-known members was Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, who entered Frederick's service as contraviolonist in 1736.

Janitsch enjoys a remarkable interest these days. With his ensemble Notturna the oboist Christopher Palameta has already devoted three discs to his sonate da camera (review Vol. 3) and recently I reviewed a disc of the same repertoire, performed by the ensemble Tempesta di Mare. It is no surprise that Palameta is very interested in Janitsch's oeuvre: his own instrument figures prominently in the composer's chamber music, and plays also a key role in the repertoire included in the programme of the present disc. It seems likely that Janitsch composed most of his chamber music for the weekly concerts of the Freitagsakademie. He founded this concert series in Rheinsberg, and when Frederick became King of Prussia and moved his court to Berlin, Janitsch continued his Friday academies there. In these concerts skilled amateurs and members of the court orchestra played together.

Undoubtedly Janitsch was inspired by the presence of highly qualified oboists in the court chapel. The most famous of them was Johann Christian Fischer, for whom Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach may have adapted two of his harpsichord concertos and probably also composed his oboe sonata. Another oboist at the court was Christian Jacobi; his name is mentioned in the autograph of Janitsch's Trio in D flat of 1762 (not included here). Several of Janitsch's pieces recorded here have alternative scorings for oboe or violin. Does this indicate that Janitsch conceived them for violin and adapted them for the oboists at the court? Or was it merely an alternative for those cases, when no oboist was available? One of such pieces is the Sonata in B flat, called here a Quadro sonata. It ranks among the genre of the quartet, which Johann Joachim Quantz described as a sonata with three concertante instruments and a bass line that is "at the same time the touchstone of an authentic contrapuntist and also a real pitfall for a musician lacking experience and compositional skills". Telemann, Fasch and Janitsch were considered the main and best composers of such pieces. Janitsch's quartets earned much praise, for instance from his colleague Johann Wilhelm Hertel, who stated that he "was a fine contrapuntalist, and his quartets are still paragons of their kind."

His contrapuntal skills come to the fore in all three pieces from his pen recorded here. Passages in which the melody instruments move in parallels were quite common at the time, but are rare in these chamber music works. The instruments have mostly independent parts, and they regularly imitate each other's motifs. The relationship between the instruments differs: sometimes the oboe takes the lead, in other cases the violin. In the Sonata in a minor, for instance, the oboe is the alternative for the second violin. It is notable that this piece has been preserved in a copy of his colleague Johann Gottlieb Graun, who noted at the title page that he had figured the basso continuo.

He is the composer of a remarkable piece, the Quintet in a minor, another work which mentions the oboe and the violin as alternatives. The most notable feature is the obbligato part for the harpsichord. It is an early example of music in which the keyboard is not confined to the performance of the basso continuo. It includes some remarkable harmonic progressions, for instance in the second movement, allegro non tanto.

All the pieces on this disc have been recorded here for the very first time. However, both Graun and Janitsch are rather well represented on disc right now. That is different with Christian Gottfried Krause, a composer I had never heard of; it seems likely that none of his works has ever been recorded before. Although he received a musical education from his father and learned to play the violin, keyboard and timpani, he decided upon a career in law. As a musician and composer he had the status of an amateur. His oeuvre comprises mainly songs and some cantatas. As far as instrumental music is concerned, New Grove mentions four symphonies and four trios with the indication "lost". The liner-notes don't mention from which source the Sonata in d minor was taken. It is a nice piece in which violin and oboe are now and then involved in a kind of dialogue, especially the closing vivace.

This is a highly interesting and entertaining disc, which considerably enhances our knowledge of musical life in Berlin at the time of Frederick the Great. As previous discs show, the increasing interest in the oeuvre of Johann Gottlieb Janitsch is well deserved. His chamber music is a rich source, which performers of our time should explore rather than perform and record the same repertoire over and over again. This disc is a model of creative programming. The inclusion of the pieces by Graun and Krause makes it an even more important addition to the discography.

The performances do the repertoire full justice. Palameta produces a clear and penetrating tone, and Catherine Martin is a perfect match. The balance between the two instruments is just right. However, the harpsichord in Graun's quintet is a bit underexposed; it should have had more presence, both with regard to the performance of this part and in the recording.

This is a substantial production of high-quality chamber music from the mid-18th century. Let's hope more of this will be released in the years to come.

Johan van Veen ( 2018)

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