Philipp Heinrich Erlebach was
a German composer from the generation before Johann Sebastian
Bach. He was born in East Frisia 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. During
these 33 years Rudolstadt developed into one of the main
music centres of Thuringia, and Erlebach also made a name
for himself as a composer of vocal and instrumental music.
After his death the court bought his entire collection of
music from his widow - an indication of how much he was appreciated.
Unfortunately many of his works were destroyed by fire in
Erlebach composed a large number
of works, secular and sacred vocal as well as instrumental.
Very little of his output was published, and only two collections
of instrumental works have survived, one of which is the
set of six sonatas recorded here. The scoring for violin,
viola da gamba and basso continuo was very common at the
time. As the violin and the viola da gamba were the most
popular instruments among amateurs, there was a large market
for the format. Similar pieces were written by other German
composers, among them Dietrich Buxtehude. But Erlebach's
sonatas are different from those of his contemporaries in
that the viola da gamba has a genuine independent part, whereas
in most sonatas by other composers - including Buxtehude's
- the viola da gamba wanders between playing solo and participating
in the basso continuo.
The sonatas are of the 'sonata
da camera' type. The first movement is in three sections
(slow, fast, slow) and is followed by four dance movements:
allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. In Sonata III
the gigue is replaced by a ciaconne which turns into a
with the indication 'adagio'. In these sonatas Erlebach
aims at a mixture of the German, Italian and French styles,
the Italian style is predominant. Erlebach even 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, instead of Allemande, Courante,
Saraband, Variatio and Gigue, should have appeared Allamanda,
Corrente, Sarabanda e Variata and Giga".
Whereas the dance movements are
mainly Italian in style, the German tradition of polyphony
is strongly present in the opening and closing movements.
Also in the German tradition is the use of the 'scordatura'
technique, which means that the strings of the violin are
tuned to notes appropriate to the key of the piece. Here
the Sonatas III and IV require this technique to be applied.
Interesting is the Sonata VI, which requires a piccolo violin.
This instrument came into use at the end of the 16th century,
and gradually disappeared after the middle of the 18th century.
The piccolo violin was tuned a third, fourth or fifth higher
than the normal violin; not an octave, as Robert Rawson writes
in the booklet. The most famous example of the use of the
piccolo violin in German music is Bach's First Brandenburg
Concerto, of course. This is the first time I have encountered
a German composition from the 17th century, where a piccolo
violin is required.
Rodolfo Richter and his colleagues
have gone a long way in the interpretation of these fine
sonatas, and I appreciate the way they treat them. Richter
articulates well, and is certainly aware of the strong rhetorical
character of Erlebach's sonatas. Some movements are particularly
well played, like the gigue from the Sonata IV or the sarabande
of the Sonata I. Having said that I don't think the contrasts
in these sonatas have been fully exposed here. I would have
liked more differentiation between strong and weak notes
and more dynamic shading. Most allegros are a shade on the
From a technical point of view
the recording is well balanced: both solo instruments are
clearly audible, for instance in the opening movement of
Sonata I, which consists of a dialogue between violin and
viola da gamba. Only in the Sonata IV is the viola da gamba
a little overshadowed by the violin.
Although the interpretation leaves
something to be desired I want to recommend this recording,
as this is the first of these sonatas, which are well worth
listening to. Erlebach deserves more attention than he has
received so far and it is very fortunate that both extant
collections of instrumental works are now available on disc.
The other collection, a set of six orchestral Overtures published
in 1693, has been recorded by the Berliner Barock-Compagney
Johan van Veen