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"Rococo - Musique à Sanssouci"

Dorothee Oberlinger, recorder; Alfredo Bernardini, oboea; Nils Mönkemeyer, violab
Ensemble 1700
Dir: Dorothee Oberlinger

rec: Sept 2016, Cologne, WDR Funkhaus (Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal)
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88875134062 (© 2016) (79'05")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Sonata (Trio) for bass recorder, viola and bc in F (Wq 163 / H 588)b; Sonata for transverse flute [recorder] and bc in e minor (Wq 124 / H 551); Ernst Gottlieb BARON (1696-1760): Concerto for transverse flute [recorder] and lute in d minore; Gottfried (Godfrey) FINGER (1660-1730): A Ground; Johann Gottlieb GRAUN (1703-1771) (attr): Concerto for recorder, violin, strings and bc in C (Graun WV Cv,XIII,96)c; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) (attr): Concerto doppio for recorder, bassoon, strings and bc in c minord; Johann Gottlieb JANITSCH (1708-1763): Quadro for recorder, oboe, violin and bc in Gac; Johann Joachim QUANTZ (1697-1773): Sarabande in G - Double I & II for recorder solo; Vivace alla francese for recorder solo in B flat; Johann Christian SCHULTZE (c1680 - 1740) or Johann Christoph SCHULTZE (1733-1813): Concerto a 5 for recorder, strings and bc in B flat

Hiro Kurasaki (soloc), Mayumi Hirasaki, Evgeny Sviridov, violin; Manuel Hofer, viola; Marco Testori, cello; Makiko Kurabayashi, bassoon (solod); Kit Scotney, violone; Axel Wolf, lute (soloe); Florian Birsak, harpsichord, organ

The term rococo is not often used in connection to music. There could be several reasons for that. Firstly, the term was originally used for a tendency in the visual arts, especially in France, and is not easily applicable for other branches of culture. Secondly, the term was invented in the late 18th century, and at that time the period known as rococo was mostly assessed negatively. In New Grove we read: "The derivation of the term (rocaille, 'shellwork') is post facto and pejorative, like most critical descriptions of the style. The term seems to have originated around 1796–7 as artists' jargon in the studio of Jacques-Louis David, where (...) it was used 'to denigrate the painting produced during the reign of Louis XV, when Mme de Pompadour was an arbiter of taste'."

How problematic the use of this word is to describe a musical period is demonstrated in the Wikipedia article on rococo. It says that in Germany "it was referred to as empfindsamer stil [sic] ("sensitive style"). It can be characterized as light, intimate music with extremely elaborate and refined forms of ornamentation." However, that is a rather inapt description of the Empfindsamkeit, which is rather extreme in its expression of often strongly contrasting emotions. "Light music" the Empfindsamkeit is most definitely not. In music which can be called rococo - especially written in France in the second quarter of the 18th century - pastoral elements play a key role, and that element is largely absent in the music of the German sensitive style.

Then why did Dorothee Oberlinger use this term as the title for her recording of German music from the mid-18th century? Her starting point is the construction of the palace in Sanssouci. "Sanssouci - Brandenburg's answer to Arcadia - was formally inaugurated in May 1747, sixteen months after the end of the Second Silesian War, and was a kind of temple to the Muses for the Rococo age, a maison de plaisance whose denizens lived lives that Voltaire described dismissively as a siècle de petitesses: a century of trifles. Contemporaries turned to the refined, the complex, the ornamental and the delicate, a predilection also found in music, where sensibility and the galant were privileged and feelings were preferred to the mathematically based art of counterpoint that had typified the earlier age."

Galant is probably the best word to describe the largest part of this disc. It also is more easily compatible with the recorder than the music of the Empfindsamkeit which needs instruments with a wider dynamic range and more capabilities to create various colours than the recorder. Among the most popular instruments of the Empfindsamkeit were the transverse flute, the violin and the clavichord. The use of the recorder - or rather a whole battery of recorders, as Oberlinger plays no fewer than nine different instruments - is one of the most notable features of this disc, especially as this instrument was on the brink of disappearance in the mid-18th century. It is true that among amateurs it was still quite popular, but it seems unlikely that much of the repertoire recorded here was intended for amateurs.

The disc opens with a piece by Gottfried Finger who for a considerable period of time worked in England and is therefore also known as Godfrey Finger. A Ground was included in a collection of Airs anglois published in Amsterdam in 1704. It links up with the rich English tradition of writing grounds, but is not part of what we probably could call the musical rococo. The same goes for the next piece, an interesting Concerto doppio in c minor for recorder and bassoon, which has been found in the archive of the Berlin Singakademie, where it is attributed to Handel. If it is from his pen - which is anything but sure - it must have been written by a very young Handel, well before his departure to Italy. It doesn't sound very Handelian to my ears, but that is also because we usually hear instrumental works from his English period, which include so many references to vocal works. This concerto reminds me of Telemann's concerto for the same scoring. Whether it is from Handel's pen or not, it is a fine work and both recorder players and bassoonists should be happy about it.

Johann Gottlieb Janitsch is one of the lesser known composers in the programme whose oeuvre has not been truly explored. He was born in Schweidnitz in Silesia (now Swidnica in Poland) and was educated at the bass viol. After having been a law student in Frankfurt an der Oder where he also played a major role in local musical life, he joined the chapel of Frederick, then still Crown Prince of Prussia, in Ruppin, later Rheinsberg. It is here that he started a series of weekly concerts on Fridays, the Freitagsakademie. It is likely that his chamber music was written for performances during these concerts in which both professional and amateur players participated. When Frederick became King of Prussia and moved his court to Berlin, Janitsch continued his Friday academies there. Not only his own music, but also music by his colleagues was performed during these concerts, the kind of music Dorothee Oberlinger has recorded. That certainly goes for the chamber music and concertos by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who accompanied Frederik the Great when he played his flute, but whose compositions were not really appreciated by his employer.

Janitsch was especially famous for his quartets. His colleague Johann Wilhelm Hertel considered them "the best specimens of the genre". They were models of contrapuntal technique; this form also frequently appears in the oeuvre of Telemann and Fasch. The Quartet in G - called Quadro by the composer - is for recorder, oboe, violin and basso continuo. Apparently the flute part is referred to as flauto, and Dorothee Oberlinger writes that "it is now generally assumed that Janitsch's flauto was an alto recorder". The fact that this quartet is dominated by counterpoint makes it well suited for the recorder.

In the case of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach the recorder is more problematic. The Sonata in e minor (Wq 124) was originally intended for the transverse flute and having heard it several times with that instrument I find it hard to get used to a performance with a recorder, beautifully as Oberlinger plays it. That is entirely different with the Sonata in F, originally scored for bass recorder, viola and basso continuo. The bass recorder is a remarkable choice anyway as this instrument was mostly played in a recorder consort, not as a solo instrument. The curiosity of this scoring explains why Bach later adapted it as a sonata for two violins and basso continuo.

Johann Joachim Quantz could not be omitted here. He was Frederick's flute teacher, composed numerous sonatas and concertos for the transverse flute and is the author of a treatise on the flute which is still frequently used by interpreters of 18th-century repertoire. Lesser known - except probably among flutists - is his study material, such as the pieces for flute solo played here. It is known that he played the recorder; Oberlinger refers to the fact that he came from the circle of the Stadtpfeifer. Whether these pieces were intended for the recorder is impossible to say; they sound well on it, though.

Ernst Gottlieb Baron is almost exclusively known as a lutist and composer of music for his own instrument. He played the theorbo in Frederick's court chapel. His oeuvre is small and includes the Concerto in d minor for flute and lute; it is a nice piece and is well played here, but in the slower parts I would have preferred the more sensitive sound of the transverse flute.

The two most remarkable pieces are the concertos by Johann Gottlieb Graun and Johann Christian Schulze, as these are definitely intended for the recorder. Graun was one of the main members of Frederick's ensemble and a much celebrated composer of instrumental music. However, it is not entirely clear whether he is the composer. It could also be his brother Carl Heinrich; they usually signed their compositions just with 'Graun', without their Christian name. The Concerto in C is the only piece by the Grauns which has a recorder part. This could well have been written with a specific player in mind. It is a relatively conservative piece; the violin part is considerably more virtuosic than the recorder part and includes double-stopping.

A Concerto in G is often attributed to Johann Christoph Schultze (c1733-1813), and that would make this piece the latest solo concerto for recorder of the 18th century. The attribution to Schultze is not that inconceivable, considering the theatrical character of the middle movement and the fact that this Schultze was a composer of music for the theatre. But Michael Schneider - who also recorded this concerto - and the musicologist Steffen Voss believe that this attribution is historically untenable, and that Johann Christian Schultze (c1680 - 1740) is the real composer. He was an oboist in the Prussian army and later violinist in the court chapel in Berlin. The track-list includes an error here: Johann Christian Schultze is mentioned as the composer but with the dates of Johann Christoph.

The concept of this disc doesn't entirely convince me and I am sceptical about the use of the recorder in some of the pieces. However, the repertoire is first class and the programme includes some pieces which are hardly known, such as the concerto attributed to Handel and the quartet by Janitsch. Dorothee Oberlinger is one of today's finest recorder players. Over the years I have heard many of her recordings and I have always rated them highly. That is not different here. She produces a beautiful tone and fully explores the features of the respective recorders: soprano, alto, tenor and bass recorder as well as the voice flute. She is supported by her own Ensemble 1700 which includes some of the best players on their respective instruments: Hiro Kurosaki (violin), Alfredo Bernardini (oboe), Makiko Kurabayashi (bassoon) and Axel Wolf (lute).

Recorder aficionados won't hesitate to add this disc to their collection, but you don't need to be one of them to really enjoy it.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Dorothee Oberlinger

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