musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Music for strings from 17th-century Austria

[I] "Minoritenkonvent"
rec: July 31 - August 3, 2014, Strasbourg, Église Sainte-Madeleine
muso - mu-008 (© 2015) (72'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

anon: Sonata in c minor (No. 75); Sonata in D (No. 4); Sonata in f minor (No. 87); Sonata in A (No. 77); Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Sonata in E (No. 84) (adagio); Sonata in e minor (No. 11); Nikolaus FABER (?-1673): Sonata in E (No. 2); Johann Caspar TEUBNER (?-1697): Sonata in d minor (No. 88); Toccata in a minor (No. 94); Giovanni Buonaventura VIVIANI (1638-1693): Sonata in a minor (No. 90); Joan VOJTA (Johann Ignaz Franz VOJTA?, c1660-before 1725): Sonata I in b minor (No. 70)

Stéphanie Paulet, violin; Elisabeth Geiger, organ

[II] "Velvet"
Ensemble Delirio
rec: [no date], Vienna, Franziskanerkirche
CDelirio - CD-14001 (© 2014) (79'58")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

anon: Sonata à 2 in D; Alessandro BERTALI (1605-1669): Sonata à 2 in D; Sonata à 2 in d minor; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Partia IV in E flat (C 65) [2]; Johann Jakob FROBERGER (1616-1667): Capriccio in g minor (FbWV 508)a [1]; Toccata in C (FbWV 109)a [1]; Toccata in a minor (FbWV 112)a [1]; Alessandro POGLIETTI (?-1683): Ricercar 1. tonia; Rossignolo (canzona; toccata)a; Sonata à 2 in d minor; Toccata fatta sopra l'assedio di Filippsburgoa; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1620/23-1680): Sonata à 2 in a minor

Sources: [1] Johann Jakob Froberger, Libro quarto di toccate, ricercari, capricci, allemande, gigue, courante, sarabande, 1656; [2] Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa, 1696

David Drabek, violin; Pablo de Pedro, viola; Philipp Comploi, viola da brazzo; Jeremy Joseph, organ (soloa)

The music for strings, and especially for solo violin, which was composed in southern Germany, Bohemia and Austria in the second half of the 17th century, has received much attention in recent years. Some composers who were active in this region, have always been quite popular with performers and audiences, especially Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber and Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. However, recent recordings include music by composers who are not that well-known, such as Antonio Bertali, Alessandro Poglietti and Rupert Ignaz Mayr. In addition they contain pieces which have been preserved without a composer's name.

They bear witness to the brilliance of violin playing in the German-speaking world at that time. The German-Austrian violin school had its roots in Italy, where the stile nuovo which emerged in the early 17th century, included instrumental virtuosity, especially on the violin and the cornett. Carlo Farina was responsible for transmitting the newest trends in violin playing to northern Europe. In Austria and the neighbouring regions Italian composers settled and were active as players, teachers and composers; here the main centre of music was the imperial court in Vienna. The fact that so many famous performers had Italian names, indicates that the court was under the spell of the Italian style.

The two discs which are reviewed here are complementary; they have in common that they largely include the same kind of repertoire, but from different sources. Aliquando has made a choice from the same source Gunar Letzbor turned to, when he recorded a series of three discs with 'Habsburg Violin Music'. It is preserved in the Viennese Friors Minor Convent as Manuscript XIV 726, which explains the name of Aliquando's disc. The Ensemble Delirio selected its programme largely from the famous Düben collection which today is part of the library of Uppsala University and was put together by the members of the German-born Düben dynasty. The two sonatas by Poglietti are taken from the music collection of the Kromeriz residence of Carl von Liechtenstein-Castelcorn, Prince-Bishop of Olmütz from 1684 to 1695.

Many pieces are called sonata; they are not of the later type which was standardized by Arcangelo Corelli, but follow the model which was common in the first half of the 17th century. There is no formal division into clearly separated movements. The sonatas are rather examples of the stylus phantasticus, whose feature is the succession of various sections of contrasting tempo and metre. Another feature of the German-Austrian violin school is the use of the technique known as scordatura: the modification of the usual tuning of the violin. This means, as Stéphanie Paulet writes in her notes to Aliquando's disc, "offering for each sonata in question a new tuning, multiplying the possibilities for tone-colours by modifying the tension of the strings, and being able at times to highlight the important focal moments for the tonality of a piece". It is nice that in the programme she recorded, the two pieces in which this technique is used, are played in direct succession, which allows to notice the contrasts between two different tunings. In Vojta's Sonata in b minor the violin is tuned B F-flat B E, in Faber's Sonata in E in B E B E. The tonality of the first is rather dark - "the overall effect can leave a bizarre, melancholic impression" (Paulet) -, whereas the second piece is much more extroverted.

It is not known exactly why the Manuskript XIV 726 has been put together. Greta Haenen, in her liner-notes to the Aliquando disc, suggests it contains basically study material. This could explain why some sonatas include movements from other sonatas by the same composer or another. Some sonatas are identical with pieces which were published. The Sonata in e minor by Biber, recorded by Aliquando, also appears in the collection Sonatae of 1681. This gives also some indication about the time the collection came into existence. It includes a number of anonymous pieces; other pieces are from the pen of little-known composers, such as Teubner and Vojta. Joan Vojta is probably identical with Johann Ignaz Franz Vojta, who was from Bohemia and worked in Prague. Only four instrumental works from his pen are known, among them the three sonatas in this manuscript. Johann Caspar Teubner was in the service of the court in Munich as a violinist since 1661. As he was from Vienna he may have been a pupil of Schmelzer. A little better known is Rupert Ignaz Mayr, who was born near Passau in Bavaria. He acted as a violinist in Munich and became later Kapellmeister in Freising.

The programme of the Ensemble Delirio is somewhat different. It includes no solo sonatas: all the pieces are à 2, which means that they are scored for two melody instruments. The second part is always for a viola da gamba, but is played here on the viola. In the liner-notes the ensemble argues that this can be justified by circumstantial evidence from historical sources. The Codex Rost - a collection of 157 pieces for strings from around 1660, preserved in the Bibliothèque Royale in Paris - includes eight sonatas for violin and a viola; two of them are also included in the Düben collection, where the lower parts are for viola da gamba. The former collection also includes a sonata for violin and viola da gamba by Schmelzer which also appears as Sonata VII in Schmelzer's Duodena Selectarum Sonatarum. "Upon closer examination the gamba voice in the Codex Rost version is mostly transposed an octave higher which supports the idea that this is also a transcription for viola. We believe this confirms our notion that arranging gamba parts for viola was common practice in this period". Further evidence that viola and viola da gamba were more or less interchangeable at the time could be the preface to the collection of sonatas which Romanus Weichlein published in 1695 as his Op. 1, called Encaenia Musices. "Where viol players are available, they may be used to the most beautiful effect in the first, third, sixth, and eleventh sonatas, instead of the violas."

The composers of all the pieces are known, except the one who composed the Sonata à 2 in D, which is recorded here for the first time. Alessandro Poglietti is the most surprising name in the programme. He is fairly well-known, but almost exclusively as a composer of keyboard music. Some of his output in this category is included here as well. Little is known about his early years and his musical education. At the beginning of 1661 he is known to have been organist and Kapellmeister to the Jesuits at the church 'Zu den neun Engelschören' in Vienna. That same year he was appointed court and chamber organist in the chapel of the Emperor Leopold I. He had close contacts with some people from the highest echelons of society. He even joined them as the emperor raised him to the ranks of the aristocracy and the pope made him a Knight of the Golden Spur. His life came to a tragic end as he was killed by the Turks during the siege of Vienna in 1683. He has become especially known for his descriptive keyboard works, such as Toccatina sopra la ribellione di Ungheria and Rossignolo. Another such piece is the Toccata fatta sopra l’assedio di Filippsburgo, which opens the programme. It describes the fall of the South-German town of Philippsburg in 1676 (the imperial army defeated the French occupation of the town). Poglietti's work-list in New Grove mentions eight sonatas for strings. The most remarkable piece is the Sonata à 2 in D; it includes several descending chromatic lines, which are especially pronounced due to the meantone tuning of the ensemble.

It is not surprising that Poglietti composed descriptive music for the keyboard while working in Vienna. It was a very popular genre at the time, especially in Austria and its neighbouring regions. Several composers wrote that kind of pieces for strings. The anonymous Sonata à 2 in D has no title indicating a descriptive nature, but it includes some passages, which seem to suggest that the composer had something in mind that he wanted to illustrate in music. One of the composers of descriptive music for strings was Biber, but here he is represented with a piece in which he makes use of the above-mentioned scordatura technique: the Partia IV from Harmonia artificioso-ariosa. The notable feature here is that violin and viola are both retuned.

The disc ends with another keyboard piece, one of three from the pen of Johann Jakob Froberger included here. He was a pupil of Frescobaldi and worked for some time at the court in Vienna. As a performer he travelled across Europe and played a major role in disseminating the Italian style - and in particular that of Frescobaldi - in France and Germany. The organ pieces are included here to separate the different sections of the programme, but also document the various forms of keyboard music.

Jeremy Joseph plays a historical instrument of 1642, built by Johann Wöckherl, with 20 registers, two manuals and pedal. Between 2009 and 2011 it was restored to its original condition. It is tuned in Chorton (a=465 Hz) which, according to the notes of the ensemble, was quite challenging to the string players. Its meantone temperament guarantees that the harmonic peculiarities of this repertoire comes off to the full. The ensemble makes the most of the programme they have put together. The playing of all the artists is first-class, and their disc testifies to the brilliance of the music played in Austria at the end of the 17th century and the mixture of the Italian style and traditional polyphony.

The disc by Aliquando is a little less interesting in regard to repertoire as a substantial part of the programme consists of pieces which Gunar Letzbor also recorded. However, there are some differences in the interpretation which makes these recordings complementary rather than competitive. The organ plays a prominent role in Aliquando's performances; in some pieces it takes care of the upper part as well, whereas in Letzbor's performance the part is played exclusively on the violin. I wonder whether there is any historical evidence for this practice. Moreover, Elisabeth Geiger plays an organ which Andreas Silbermann built for the Grey Sisters of Haguenau in 1730 and which today is in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg. Although it has one manual and no pedal it is considerably larger than the chamber organs mostly used in this kind of repertoire. These sonatas may indeed be originally intended as study material, that doesn't exclude that they may have been played in church. In the 17th century instrumental music was part of the liturgy in Catholic churches. Weichlein, mentioned above, specifically states in his preface that the sonatas can be played both in sacred and in secular surroundings ("tum in ecclesia, tum ad tabulam"). One could argue that the repertoire is approached here from a somewhat different angle. The acoustic is also different which could explain the difference in articulation. Letzbor's articulation is sharper and he also creates stronger dynamic contrasts. I am happy to have both recordings in my collection, especially as Paulet and Geiger deliver fine performances. The beautiful organ also speaks in favour of their disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Delirio

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