August KÜHNEL (1645-v.1700)
Sei Sonate ò Partite (Cassel 1698)
Sonata I in F major [8:48]
Sonatina VI en écho in C major [8:43]
Sonatine V (serenata) in C minor [13:05]
Sonata III in G minor [11:49]
Sonata II in E minor [10:13]
Sonatina IV in A minor [9:32]
Concert Les Voix humaines
rec. 2010, Église Saint-Augustin, Mirabel (Québec), Canada.
ATMA CLASSIQUE ACD2 2644 [80:23]

August Kühnel was born in Delmenhorst in Lower Saxony, the son of Samuel Kühnel, from whom he gained his early musical instruction and enthusiasm for the viola da gamba. He was to become one most important performers on the bass viol of his time in Germany, though this would be hard to divine from his compositional output alone. Few of his works were published in his lifetime, though the sonatas performed here are part of a collection of 14 pieces published in 1698 and dedicated to his employer, Charles I, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel.

The bulk of the movements in these works are dance forms from Italy and France, but a sense of compositional freedom is signalled at the outset with some of the opening Préludes. These follow no particular pattern, but derive from an ex tempore style of playing, taking in this case the form of a kind of written out improvisation. The structure of each sonata is also loose, ranging from seven movements of Sonatina V to the single movement, or multiple sections of the Aria Variata of which Sonata III consists. Here we come to my only moan about this release, and that is that each sonata or sonatina is presented on a single track, so locating various movements is vastly more inconvenient than it need be. This makes no difference when playing the disc for pleasure, but makes no sense for anyone trying to study the music.

The recording is very good indeed, with the viols separated between left and right channels, making for fascinating musical conversations. The harpsichord is set at a realistic level, providing harmonic and rhythmic support while blending nicely with the other instruments. Eric Milnes the harpsichord player gets my vote for his restraint, spreading the chords effectively while avoiding filling every space with extra notes and allowing the viols to sing over and amongst the harmonies. Theorbo strumming adds bass depth and a sonorous foundation to an already relatively low range of sounds in the first two sonatas presented.

This is the kind of music which is striking in its sonorities and timbres, and once you have allowed yourself to be embraced by these fascinating sounds you can dig deeper and allow your mind to be entertained further by the subtle variations and nuances in the actual music. The echo effects of Sonata VI are of course a treat, but each piece is a rich feast of elegant and uplifting musicianship from both composer and performers. This Kühnel release has some competition in The Spirit of Gambo on Brilliant Classics BC93878, but I find the programmes and performances rather complement each other rather than struggling for supremacy. Either way, this Atma Classique title very much joins the top of the heap when it comes to bass viol recordings.

Dominy Clements

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