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Johann Gottlieb GRAUN (1703-1771)
Trio for keyboard, viola da gamba and bc in C* [17:01]
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Sonata for keyboard and violin in D (Wq 71 / H 502) (transcription for keyboard and viola da gamba) [11:55]
Sinfonia for 2 violins and bc in a minor (Wq 156 / H 582) (transcribed for keyboard and viola da gamba) [11:24]
Sonata for 2 violins and bc in c minor 'Sanguineus und Melancholicus' (Wq 161,1 / H 579) (transcribed for keyboard and viola da gamba) [16:41]
Anon (attr. Ludwig Christian HESSE, 1716-1772)
Sonata for viola da gamba and keyboard in D [14:41]
Lucile Boulanger (viola da gamba), Arnaud de Pasquale (fortepiano), Laurent Stewart (fortepiano (bc))*
rec. 20-24 December 2014, Studio Flagey, Brussels, Belgium. DDD
ALPHA 202 [71:46]

This disc takes us to the court of Frederick the Great. When he was still Crown Prince of Prussia he started to bring together some of the finest musicians and composers of the time to serve him in his private chapel in Ruppin. In 1738 he moved to Rheinsberg and in 1740, when he succeeded his father as King of Prussia, to Berlin. The present disc includes music by three members of Frederick's chapel.

The programme focuses on the role of the viola da gamba. That is remarkable considering that this instrument was becoming obsolete around the middle of the 18th century. In most countries it was overshadowed by the cello but in Germany it could hold its ground, partly thanks to the presence of some gamba virtuosos. The most skilled gambist in Berlin was Ludwig Christian Hesse (1716 - 1772). He was from a musical family, his father being a gambist himself and his mother being a professional singer. He was taught at first by his father, and from 1738 to 1741 was a member of the chapel of the court in Darmstadt. He moved to Berlin and entered the royal chapel of Frederick the Great and from 1761 became a member of the private chapel of Crown Prince Frederick William II. In 1771 he returned to Darmstadt, where he died the next year.

The presence of such a virtuoso inspired some of his colleagues to write music for the viola da gamba. One of them was Johann Gottlieb Graun, the chapel's Konzertmeister. He wrote no fewer than 22 works for or with viola da gamba, among them five solo concertos. The Trio in C is for keyboard, viola da gamba and bc. Such a scoring was not entirely new: in his Essercizii Musici of 1740 Georg Philipp Telemann had included several sonatas for a melody instrument, a concertante keyboard and bc, among them a sonata for the same scoring as Graun's trio. Whether such a piece was played at Frederick's court is impossible to prove. Most members of the court chapel participated in private concerts in the salons of members of the Berlin upper class. One of those who regularly organized concerts was Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia, the younger sister of Frederick. She owned a large music library and Graun's Trio in C has been preserved in a manuscript which is part of her library.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the court's harpsichordist but Frederick didn't really appreciate him or his music. It seems likely that his chamber music was mostly played at private concerts in Berlin. He composed two sonatas for viola da gamba and bc and one sonata for keyboard and gamba but these are not included here. What we get instead are three pieces which were intended for a different scoring but have been transcribed for obbligato keyboard and viola da gamba. There is no fundamental objection against such transcriptions. However, considering that the viola da gamba was not a mainstream instrument anymore, and certainly not among amateurs, one wonders whether this is the most logical option. It is notable, for instance, that CPE Bach's Sonata in g minor (Wq 88) for keyboard and viola da gamba also exists in a version in which the viola da gamba has been replaced by the viola.

The Sonata in D (Wq 71) was originally conceived for keyboard and violin. The liner-notes don't give any specific information about the nature of the transcription; in this case the gamba probably plays the violin part an octave lower. The Sinfonia in a minor (Wq 156) was written for two violins and bc. The turning of this piece into a work for obbligato keyboard and viola da gamba is not unlike a practice of CPE Bach himself. In his early years he composed trio sonatas some of which he later arranged for keyboard and one melody instrument. In the case of the Sonata in c minor (Wq 161,1) this practice is even indicated in the manuscript. It says that one of the upper voices can be played at the keyboard. This sonata has a more or less programmatic character in that it demonstrates what the Empfindsamkeit is all about. In particular the opening movement is a dialogue between two characters dominated by one of the four temperaments: the sanguine and the melancholic. Each is represented by one of the violins, and have a different tempo indication: allegretto and presto respectively. They alternate in quick succession: their contributions sometimes last only two bars and then the other intervenes. It is this kind of sonatas which Frederick the Great certainly did not like: he preferred music in the galant idiom which is far from what CPE Bach offers here.

The remaining work has been preserved anonymously but is attributed to Ludwig Christian Hesse himself. It is another piece from the library of Anna Amalia. It is a quite brilliant work; notable is the middle movement (poco adagio) which is dramatic in nature and includes elements of the recitative. Although there are some concertante passages for keyboard it is the viola da gamba which has the lead and that is reflected by the balance between the two instruments which is in favour of the gamba.

It shows that the performers have given much attention to the stylistic aspects of the music they have chosen. In the other pieces the keyboard has more prominence. It is interesting that Arnaud de Pasquale who before had only played the harpsichord, the clavichord and the organ turned to the fortepiano for this recording. He decided to use two different fortepianos. A copy of an instrument by Bartolomeo Cristofori of 1722 is used in two of CPE Bach's works, the Sinfonia in a minor and the Sonata in c minor. Laurent Stewart uses it in the basso continuo of Graun's Trio in C. In the other two works De Pasquale plays a copy of a Silbermann of 1749 which has a darker sound and is, according to his notes in the booklet, much heavier to play.

As far as I know only Graun's trio has been recorded before; the anonymous sonata possibly receives its first recording here, and obviously CPE Bach's three works have not been recorded in this scoring. This seems to be the second recording of these two artists. In 2011 they recorded the three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach which I rate as one of the best available (review). This disc confirms my impressions as this is another outstanding recording. Despite my slight scepticism about these transcriptions from a historical point of view I have greatly enjoyed the playing of these two performers. They deliver engaging interpretations in which the traits of this repertoire are fully explored. The fast movements are energetic but there is also a lot of expression and sentiment - in the historical sense of the word - in the slow movements. The sudden shifts between the temperaments, especially in CPE Bach's 'dialogue sonata', come off to good effect. I also applaud the fact that De Pasquale deliberately chose older types of fortepianos rather than an instrument from the 1780s which is so often used.

It just proves that Boulanger and De Pasquale are very sensible and sincere artists. I am looking forward to their next recording.

Johan van Veen



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