Friday, January 6, 2023

Rameau and Gluck

Jean-Philippe Rameau is now considered one of the greatest opera composers in history. That was not always the case. In the early stages of his career, his stage works were not always well received. His style was considered too complicated. He was ahead of his time and only later did he gain recognition. But even at that time the libretti were critically received. On the other hand, everyone agreed that he was a brilliant orchestrator. This is demonstrated in the 'Nouvelle Symphonie' recorded by Marc Minkowski with his orchestra Les Musiciens du Louvre [1]. The title links this disc to the 'Symphonie imaginaire' that he recorded in 2002. That was on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his orchestra. Incidentally, the word 'symphony' has nothing to do with the symphony as it arose around the middle of the 18th century and led to the great works of the late 18th and 19th centuries. In Baroque France it was used for an instrumental ensemble in general. One finds it, for example, in the chamber cantatas, in which the voice is accompanied by a 'symphony'. The program begins and ends with excerpts from Castor et Pollux. However, it begins with the overture of the first version (1737) and ends with three instrumental movements from the 1754 version (with an aria from the first). As the program progresses, one hears how the orchestra has changed in Rameau's works. In Rameau's oeuvre, the clarinet finds its way into the French opera orchestra. In his oeuvre the orchestra also plays a dramatic role. In this recording, the overture to Acanthe et Céphise (1751) may serve as a model for Rameau's new treatment of the orchestra. Minkowski has provided a compelling and fascinating musical portrait of the composer here, making it clear that Rameau is rightly regarded as a key figure in the development of orchestration. No wonder someone like Claude Debussy was deeply impressed by Rameau's music. Florian Sempey sings some arias from Les Paladins, Les Indes Galantes, Dardanus and - as I already mentioned - Castor et Pollux. The drama comes through very well, but stylistically I'm less impressed with his performances. In addition, when he sings loudly, his voice has an unpleasant sharpness. The booklet includes the lyrics, with translations in English and German, but unfortunately one is left in the dark about the dramatic context. That is a problem for those who don't know Rameau's operas. But the most important thing are the instrumental movements, and that part of this recording leaves nothing to be desired.

Since the rediscovery of baroque opera, several recordings have been made that are dedicated to a singer who performed in the operas of the time. Among them are mainly sopranos and castrati. Almost without exception, the operas are Italian. In comparison, the singers who performed in French operas are much less well known. Dedicating a recording with arias to them is not that easy, because in French operas the solos are much more embedded in the whole than in Italian operas, and the text also relates much more to the dramatic development of the work. And so it is not surprising that the CD 'Rameau triomphant' [2] mainly contains scenes instead of isolated arias. They are often closely linked to the dances that are so typical of French opera. Another feature is that a singer and the chorus often appear together, whereas most Italian operas include only a few choruses, mostly just one at the close, to be sung by the soloists in ensemble. And then there is the typical French voice type of haute-contre. Mathias Vidal sings solos from ten different operas and the acte de ballet Pygmalion, in which the haute-contre takes on a role. In an interview in the libretto, he explains that Rameau uses this type of voice in different ways, and that the different tessitura of the roles correspond to their weight. Unfortunately, this weight is not mentioned for the individual roles. Almost in passing, it is noted that several roles were played by the haute-contre Pierre de Jélyotte, famous in Rameau's time, but which roles he sang is not mentioned either. The fact that scenes have been taken out of their dramatic context is not unproblematic. Some dance interludes are played relatively slowly. That may make sense in a dramatic context, but when they are isolated from their context the tempos seem rather unnatural. Mathias Vidal is an experienced singer who has often sung important roles in French operas and here - despite the limitations of the concept - he knows how to convince and to show to what extent the singers contributed to the success of an opera. His tessitura and the way he deals with the top notes is impressive. In doing so, he avoids the shouting that other singers think they need to emphasize the dramatic character of an aria. There is a little too much vibrato here and there, but overall it doesn't detract from the persuasiveness of this production. Vidal receives fine support from the ensemble Marguerite Louise under the direction of Gaétan Jarry. It's just a pity that the booklet is a bit sloppy, at least as far as the English translation is concerned. The dances are also mentioned in the libretto and these are also translated. There is no need to translate 'gavotte vive' as 'lively gavotte' or 'Calme des sense (Air tendre)' as 'Calm of the senses (tender air). More serious is that in some cases 'air' is translated as 'aria', which is simply wrong, as this suggests a vocal piece. In French operas this refers to an air de mouvement or air à jouer. It is basically impossible to translate, as there are no equivalents in other music. (By the way, the German translation is even worse. Fortunately, the music and interpretation are much better.

The last disc to be reviewed here was inspired by another singer of the 18th century: Henri Larrivée, a baritone who was initially a singer in the choir of the Opéra and then sang as a soloist in Rameau's Castor et Pollux in 1755. He later took on roles in Hippolyte et Aricie, Dardanus and Zoroastre. But he also sang in operas by other composers, including Gluck, whom he greatly admired. Hence these two composers come together on a CD entitled 'Enfers' [3] - the French word 'enfer' means 'hell'. According to my dictionary it has no plural, and the fact that it is used here in the plural is probably due to the fact that we are hearing excerpts from various operas in which hell or the underworld plays a role. The programme is designed in an unusual way: as a kind of mass, with spiritual and secular elements. Raphaël Pichon was inspired to do this by an anonymously transmitted Requiem Mass based on material from Rameau's opera Castor et Pollux. The pieces are arranged according to the parts of the Requiem Mass. The sequence (Dies irae) opens with an 'sinfonie infernale' from Gluck's Orphée et Euridice (the French version of Orfeo ed Euridice), followed by excerpts from Zoroastre. Of course, the Dance of the Furies is also included in this section. The conclusion is an aria by Pluto and an ensemble of the Fates from Hippolyte et Aricie. This way of working out the concept did not particularly convince me. I find the mixture of spiritual and secular elements somewhat unfortunate. I am more positive about the interpretations by Stéphane Degout and choir and orchestra of Pygmalion. Degout has projected himself into the various roles very well and depicts them as well as is possible in excerpts. There are also short solos by some colleagues; among them, Emmanuelle de Negri and Reinoud Van Mechelen in particular stand out. The musical qualities of the operas by Rameau and Gluck are convincingly demonstrated in this production.

Rameau: "Nouvelle Symphonie"
Florian Sempey, baritone; Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS062 (© 2022) details

"Rameau triomphant"
Mathias Vidal, haute-contre; Marguerite Louise/Gaétan Jarry
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS039 (©2021) details

"Enfers - Famous opera scenes by Rameau and Gluck"
Stéphane Degout, baritone; Pygmalion/Raphaël Pichon
Harmonia mundi HMM 902288 (2016; 79') details

Friday, November 4, 2022

Bach and the recorder

In my previous blog I reviewed several discs with music transcribed for keyboard. Recorder players are also keen transcribers as they find that there is not enough music for their instrument, especially in the repertoire of the 18th century. The recorder was one of the main instruments of the Renaissance and was still frequently played during the 17th century. It lost its appeal to composers after 1700, when the transverse flute became increasingly popular. Again, Bach is one of the most frequently-transcribed composers: almost anyone wants to play some music by him, but unfortunately he did not serve recorder players very well. Their instrument is given parts in some of the Brandenburg Concertos and participates in a number of cantatas, but there are no sonatas for recorder, neither solo nor trio sonatas. There are quite a number of recordings on the market, in which recorder players perform Bach's sonatas for transverse flute. Those are also included in the recordings which are the subject of this blog, but they cover a wider range of repertoire.

Stefano Bagliano and Andrea Coen [1] play three of Bach's flute sonatas, However, one of them, included as BWV 1020 in the Schmieder catalogue, is probably not from JS Bach's pen, but rather written by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. It is scored for an obbligato harpsichord and flute; in this performance Bagliano plays a soprano recorder which produces a rather penetrating sound, at the cost of the harpsichord. Given that all the parts are treated on equal footing by the composer, that is a problem. The balance between the recorder and the organ is generally better, especially if Bagliano plays an alto recorder. The repertoire is unusual: I can't remember ever having heard some of the 3-part Sinfonias and contrapuncti from Die Kunst der Fuge in a performance by recorder and keyboard. In the Sonata BWV 1032 the recorder is accompanied by the organ in the first two movements, but by the harpsichord in the third, which is rather unsatisfying. The playing leaves nothing to be desired, but all in all I am not really convinced by this recording.

It is no coincidence that the organ is a better match for the recorder than the harpsichord. Both are wind instruments, and the recorder can sound like one of the stops of the organ. The balance is generally better, as the next disc shows. Agnès Blanche Marc and Helene von Rechenberg [2] confine themselves to the oeuvre of Bach and play three of his chamber works for transverse flute(s): BWV 1030, 1031 and 1039. The have extended their programme with the triosonata for organ BWV 527 and the chorale trio Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend (BWV 655). In these two pieces Ms Marc plays a soprano recorder, and even here it is too dominant, although that may well be due to the recording. In the trio sonata this damages the equal role of all three parts. In the chorale trio it would not be that much of a problem, if the recorder would play the cantus firmus, but here it plays the upper part. The effect is that it overshadows the cantus firmus played at a lower pitch at the organ. I am hesitant to rank this recording among those in the tradition of historical performance practice. The booklet mentions the recorders that are used here, but not whether they are copies of historical instruments. The organ definitely is no historical instrument: It was originally built in 1930 and has been rebuilt in 1983/84; a number of pipes from the old organ were included. Parts of the rebuilt instrument have "a classic 'neo-baroque' disposition", according to the booklet. Those are not the features which makes it suitable for a performance that does justice to the baroque performance practice. Obviously, the organ is in modern pitch and has an equal temperament. That is not what is required in a performance of music by Bach. It results in performances that are a bit dull, even though the playing is alright.

The last two discs have much in common: Bach is in the centre of attention, and the instruments are recorder and lute. This turns out to be a pretty much ideal partnership. Under the title 'Dialogues' Dorothee Oberlinger and Edin Karamazov [3] play a programme of pieces by Bach that are arranged for either instrument solo or for the combination of both. Again, we get two of Bach's flute sonatas (BWV 1034 and 1035), but also the allemande from the Partita BWV 1013 for flute solo. The longest item is the last of the programme: the lute suite BWV 997, here in an arrangement for recorder and lute. It works pretty well, and overall the balance is much better than in the two previous recordings. Both players execute their selection of works with much sensitivity and stylistic understanding. Only in the performance of the Concerto in d minor (BWV 974), Bach's arrangement of Alessandro Marcello's oboe concerto, I think Ms Oberlinger goes a little too far in her ornamentation. However, this is a very enjoying disc that will please Bach lovers just as much as recorder and lute aficionados.

That may also be the case with the last disc. Tabea Debus and Alon Sariel [4] open and close their programme with Bach: they start with the lute suite BWV 997 that also figures on the previous disc, but play only three of the four movements. The Partita BWV 1006 for violin solo is performed here in an arrangement for recorder and lute. I don't think I have ever heard this piece with this combination of instruments, but it works surprisingly well. In between are pieces by Silvius Leopold Weiss and Heinrich Franz Ignaz Biber as well as Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel. The latter is represented here by his little-known harp sonata - a quite original choice. The pieces by Biber are played well, but especially the passacaglia that closes the collection of Mystery Sonatas is the least-convincing item, probably because the recorder can't quite reproduce the dynamic capabilities of the violin. The two players are excellent, and because of that this disc is interesting and entertaining.

[1] JS Bach: "Music for Recorder & Harpsichord"
Stefano Bagliano, recorder; Andrea Coen, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95777 (© 2021) details

[2] JS Bach: "Bach & Flauto & Organo"
Agnès Blanche Marc, recorder; Helene von Rechenberg, organ
Spektral SRL4-20180 (© 2022) details

[3] JS Bach: "Dialoge"
Dorothee Oberlinger, recorder; Edin Karamazov, lute
deutsche harmonia mundi 19439875862 (© 2021) details

[4] "Sounds familiar"
Tabea Debus, recorder; Alon Sariel, lute
gwk records GWK 156 (© 2022) details

Friday, October 21, 2022

Transcriptions: Bach & Weiss

Transcribing music for a different medium has been common practice throughout history. For many people it was the only way to listen to music, that was beyond their grasp in its original form. Orchestral music was transcribed for piano (Beethoven/Liszt), opera arias for harpsichord (Handel/Babell) and a Requiem for string quartet (Mozart/Lichtenthal). Today we are blessed with the technical possibilities to record music in its original form and to reproduce in our living room what has been recorded in a concert hall or the theatre. Even so, transcriptions are still made, by musicians who would like to play music they love on their own instrument. Gustav Leonhardt was one of them: he transcribed several of Johann Sebastian Bach's works for a single string instrument - violin, cello - for harpsichord. That may surprise, as he was the pioneer of a movement, whose intention was to interpret music according to the intentions of the composer. Skip Sempé, in the booklet to his recording of some of Leonhardt's transcriptions [1], which were published after his death, asks whether that is really possible. "For early music practitioners, the composer is long gone. Is this the real reason that we speak with passion and authority of the composer's intentions? Is the fact that the composer is gone what allows us to disguise our intentions as his?"

Leonhardt was inspired by Bach's own transcriptions of some of his music for violin and cello. He first set to complete what Bach had omitted, and later transcribed entire works that Bach himself had let untouched. It is known that Bach sometimes played his music for solo strings on keyboard, and he was also not afraid to transcribe music by others. It is interesting that Sempé mentions that Leonhardt was inspired by his interest in baroque bowed string playing. It seems that his own knowledge of string instruments influenced him in his way of interpreting Bach's keyboard works. Leonhardt had learnt to play the viola da gamba, and can be heard as a player of the viol in some early recordings of the Leonhardt Consort.

Sempé has recorded some of Leonhardt's transcriptions, but does not try to copy the master's own style of playing, and rightly so. He added music from the 17th century, by Froberger, Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, Cabanilles and Kuhnau. Bach may have known some of these pieces, but they are included here in line with what Sempé states in the booklet: that Bach's works for solo violin stylistically belong to the time before the galant idiom made its appearance. These 17th-century pieces reflect the world where Bach came from. This is a very interesting production, and Sempé's playing is excellent. I urge anyone purchasing this disc to read the booklet carefully.

The two next discs are rather unusual, to put it mildly. Bach's keyboard works have also been the subject of transcriptions. Recorder consorts like to turn to his organ works, as their polyphonic texture is ideally suited to be realized by an ensemble of recorders of different pitch, and as both the organ and the recorder are wind instruments. Other ensembles, such as viol consorts, string quartets or even larger ensembles have also performed Bach's keyboard works (and other pieces). Jorge Jiménez must have been the first who attempted to translate one of Bach's most iconic keyboard works, the Goldberg Variations [2], for a single instrument, the violin. One could say that he turned Leonhardt's practice around. If a work for violin or cello solo is transcribed for keyboard, the transcriber needs to add something in order to make it sound like a natural keyboard piece. Jiménez had to reduce the score: it is impossible to realise all the notes in the variations at once. In his liner-notes, he refers to Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin, stating that "the composer becomes a master of illusion: he creates the effect that three or even four voices are sounding at the same time". I have to say that I was rather sceptical when I received this disc and realized what it was about. My expectations were not high, but I am happy to say that they have been surpassed. Obviously, we don't get all the notes and all the chords Bach has written, but I was surprised how well it sounds. I would not go as far as saying that this sounds like a natural work for the violin, like Bach's sonatas and partitas, but it seems an interesting addition to the reservoir of Bach transcriptions. I have heard Bach transcriptions that I found much less convincing. Jiménez is the best possible advocate for his own work here. This is a very interesting addition to the Bach discography.

The name of Pantaleon Hebenstreit is rather well-known: he was part of Bach's world and invented a curious instrument, called Pantaleon. It was a large hammered dulcimer with a wide range and full chromatic scale. Bach may have heard him playing it, and several composers of his time were enthusiastic about it. One of them was Johann Kuhnau, his predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, who played it himself. The famous harpsichord and organ builder Gottfried Silbermann built several such instruments for Hebenstreit. The latter seems to have improvised and arranged music by others. He has left no music, and unfortunately not a single copy of the Pantaleon has been preserved. In the recording by La Gioia Armonica [3] which was released by Ramée, Margit Übellacker plays a modern reconstruction of a tenor dulcimer. It seems that it was mostly music for keyboard and for violin which were the subject of Hebenstreit's arrangements. The performers decided to perform pieces by Bach, originally written for a string instrument. Übellacker plays some movements from pieces for solo violin (Partita No. 3) and cello (Suites Nos. 1 and 3) and works for violin and basso continuo or obbligato keyboard respectively; in the latter she is joined by Jürgen Banholzer at the organ. The solo items and the pieces with basso continuo come off best, as there the dulcimer can be clearly heard. In the two items with obbligato keyboard - the Sonatas BWV 1015 and 1019 - the organ is a bit too dominant and tends to overshadow the dulcimer. I just wonder how things would have been the other way around: if Margit Übellacker had played the keyboard parts and a colleague of hers the violin. One may question whether these performances are really transcriptions. Little seems to have been changed. That said, the violin parts obviously do sound very different from a performance on the violin. The performers are doing an excellent job here, but I find the results not entirely convincing. On balance this disc is more interesting than musically satisfying.

One of his colleagues Bach definitely knew personally, was Silvius Leopold Weiss [4], the star lutenist who was for many years a member of the Dresden court chapel. There has been speculation that Bach composed his lute works for him, but that is impossible to prove. It seems likely, though, that Weiss inspired him to write for the lute. Bach knew Weiss's own music: the Suite in A (BWV 1025) for harpsichord and violin has been identified as a transcription of a sonata for lute by Weiss. Some of Bach's works can be played on both instruments. If performers transcribe Bach's works for solo violin and solo cello for the keyboard, why should they not transcribe Weiss's sonatas (which are in fact suites)? That was the thought of Wolfgang Rübsam, who in recent years seems to have fallen in love with the lute-harpsichord. He has recorded several of Bach's keyboard works on it, and he plays it again in these transcriptions. Its sound makes it a logical choice for the transcription of lute music, but there is no reason why it should not be played on a 'normal' harpsichord as well. Whereas the recordings I just referred to did not string a chord with me, this is different. I found his recording of the Goldberg Variations very annoying, and hardly listenable. The desynchronization of the two hands is so extreme that one wondered whether the left hand knew what the right hand was doing. That is different here. I have really enjoyed this recording of sonatas by Weiss, whose music is of the same level as Bach's. He was famous for a reason. The lute is not everyone's cup of tea. This disc allows to become acquainted with Weiss's oeuvre in a different way. Rübsam is an eloquent guide.

[1] Johann Sebastian Bach: "Tradition & Transcription"
Skip Sempé, harpsichord
Paradizo PA0018 (© 2021) details

[2] Johann Sebastian Bach: "Rethinking Bach - Goldberg Variations"
Jorge Jiménez, violin
Pan Classics PC 10434 (© 2022) details

[3] Johann Sebastian Bach: "Hebenstreit's Bach"
La Gioia Armonica
Ramée RAM 2101 (© 2022) details

[4] Silvius Leopold Weiss: "Sonatas" Wolfgang Rübsam, lute-harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95509 (© 2021) details

Thursday, October 6, 2022

The 'Utrecht Passion' - a faux pas

When historical performance emerged, the ideal was to perform music according to the intentions of the composers. That included scepticism towards the phenomenon of arrangements, unless they were from the pen of the composer himself. With time, performers realized that this was a very common phenomenon. We know this practice from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when some popular songs or tunes appeared numerous times in all sorts of arrangements by different composers. It did not end there: in the baroque period arrangements were also quite common, and this practice continued in the classical and romantic periods, when arrangements were often a way to be able to play music at home that was originally written for a large orchestra.

The word 'arrangement' is a collective term for all kinds of adaptations. Some were made by a composer himself. Bach, for instance, used his secular cantatas for sacred music, such as the Christmas Oratorio. Obviously, such arrangements are very different from that infamous arrangement of Bach's first prelude from the Welltempered Clavier I by Charles Gounod, who turned it into a rather sentimental Ave Maria. The most strict way of adapting a piece is what is known as contrafact: the original text of a piece is replaced by a different text. In a way it is the most easy kind of adaptation, as the music remains untouched. On the other hand, it is not easy to write a text which exactly fits the music. It is this kind of arrangement that was presented at the 2022 Utrecht Early Music Festival as the 'Utrecht Passion'.

What exactly was that about? Let me quote the programme. "The Utrechter Passion is nothing more than Johann Sebastian Bach's St John Passion with a new libretto. Instead of the suffering of Christ, the story focuses on the suffering of LGBTQIA+ people, who were discriminated against and murdered, nowadays and in the past. (...) Bach's music remains completely intact. Everything sounds the same, except for the words, which completely conform to Bach's melodic lines."

The text was written by Thomas Höft, and as he is not a musician, it is only logical that he left the music untouched. Whether he succeeded in writing a text that fit the music is something I can't judge, as I did not attend the performance. I also can't assess the text itself: I assume that a translation was shown as supertitles during the performance, but I have no access to the (German) text of Höft's adaptation.

We know quite some contrafacta from the renaissance and baroque periods. To mention a few examples: in 1607 Aquilino Coppini published a collection of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi with sacred texts. This allowed the inhabitants of convents to enjoy the music without being confronted with texts that were considered not suitable for their ears. It is not known whether Monteverdi agreed or disagreed. The latter seems unlikely, as he himself adapted his famous Lamento d'Arianna into the Pianto della Madonna. Many German hymns are contrafacta. One of the most famous is O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden: the melody is from the pen of Hans-Leo Hassler (1564-1612), who used it for a secular text, Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret.

From this angle it seems there is no objection whatsoever against to what Thomas Höft did with Bach's St John Passion. In my view, that would be the wrong conclusion. I have chosen the title of this blog for a reason. I sincerely believe that this project was a serious mistake. I see two reasons for that.

One of the basic principles of historical performance practice has always been that a performance should stay as closely as possible to what the composer intended. And that could become a problem, if the text of a piece as written by the composer is changed. In my view it is not right to use the music of a composer for a text he may not have agreed with. Today's performers are not the owner of what a composer has written. That was the approach of representatives of the traditional performance practice, who performed the music according to their own taste. Precisely that is something the pioneers of historical performance practice wanted to get rid of.

Then the obvious question is: what about the adaptations of the past, as the ones referred to above? First: we may think about them what we want. If we reject this practice per se, we should not perform such pieces, like Coppini's sacred adaptations of Monteverdi's madrigals. However, there is no need to judge a practice of the past. There is a difference between accepting what has come down to us from history as a matter of fact and applying that practice ourselves today.

There is another issue here. If we look at the originals and the contrafacta, they are mostly pretty close, both chronologically and culturally. Coppini published his adaptations at the time that Monteverdi was at the height of his career. Both were devout members of the Catholic church, and that alone makes it unlikely that Monteverdi would have disapproved of those sacred adaptations. The same goes for the other example I used: the first time Hassler's melody was used for a sacred hymn was only a few years after he published his song, when it was used for the text Herzlich tut mich verlangen. As there can be little doubt that Hassler, although he composed music for the Catholic liturgy and for Catholic rulers, was a Lutheran, it is highly unlikely that he would have rejected the adaptation of his song. The reason that original and adaptation were so close in time, is that before the 18th century it was rather unusual to perform music that was considered 'old' - something written earlier than, say, about twenty years or so ago.

And here we have the difference between those adaptations and the 'Utrecht Passion'. There is a gap in time, and with it a cultural gap, between 2022 and the time and spiritual world of Bach. It is questionable whether Bach would have agreed with this kind of adaptation. We can't be sure, and we can't ask him. Therefore we should leave his music as it is, and not misuse it to express views of different people in a different time.

There is another reason why I think this adaptation is a faux pas. If we look at the adaptations of the renaissance and baroque periods, we notice that it was always a secular piece that was turned into a sacred one, never the other way around. Bach used secular cantatas for sacred music, but never turned anything sacred into a secular piece. Secular songs were used for sacred hymns, not vice versa (except perhaps as satire). If such pieces exist, I have not encountered them. This can be easily explained: in a time the whole society in Europe was Christian, either Catholic or Protestant (or something else), the sacred was considered superior to the secular. Turning a secular piece into a sacred work was a promotion. Adapting a sacred work into a secular piece would have been considered a degradation, and even something close to blasphemy. From that angle the procedure Thomas Höft has followed, turning a sacred work into a secular piece, goes directly against the spirit of the time Bach wrote his St John Passion.

The text in the festival's programme says: "We find the rewriting of this passion an exciting experiment within the historical performance practice. It allows us to experience Bach's music in an entirely new way and to rediscover emotions obscured by the patina of the long performance tradition". I sincerely believe they have got it all very wrong. This 'experiment' is basically a violation of some fundamental principles of historical performance practice and entirely anachronistic.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Schmelzer & Biber - the Austrian violin school

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c1623-1680) can be considered the founder of the Austrian violin school. After he was accepted into the Vienna court orchestra in 1649, he was able to fully develop his skills, also as a composer. In this function he was responsible for the ballet music that was performed during the carnival period. In 1664 Schmelzer published his first - and only - collection of solo sonatas, entitled Sonatae unarum fidium [1]. They testify to the advanced playing technique of the composer, including in the area of ​​bowing and the extension of the tessitura to the highest positions of the fingerboard of the time. Musically, the sonatas stand out with brilliant variations over an ostinato bass and strong contrasts in the area of ​​affects. Gunar Letzbor recorded the entire collection and in his liner-notes he points out that the sonatas become increasingly sombre as they progress. He connects this with the situation in Europe at the time, such as the attacks by the Turks and repeated plague pandemics. Schmelzer himself fell victim to such a pandemic in 1680. The six sonatas are extended by a Ciaccona in A, which once again demonstrates Schmelzer's technique of variation. And then there are two ballets that might serve as entertaining intermezzos. They show another, less serious side of the composer. The Austrian/Central European music of the late 17th century is at the heart of Letzbor's repertoire. He has already made many excellent recordings of such music, and this recent disc may well represent the ideal interpretation of Schmelzer's sonatas. His playing is colourful, dynamically differentiated and always rooted in rhetorics. The different affects are effectively communicated. Letzbor's colleagues in his ensemble offer an substantial contribution with their realisation of the basso continuo. This recording perfectly documents how amazing and exciting Schmelzer's music is.

Although Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) cannot be considered a formal pupil of Schmelzer, there were contacts between the two and it is difficult to imagine that Schmelzer's sonatas did not influence Biber. Both followed the developments in violin playing in the more northern regions of the German-speaking part of Europe. Schmelzer had already done that, and Biber adds a lot more. This is well expressed in his collection Sonatae, Violino solo [2] from 1681. In Schmelzer's music double stops and the use of scordatura are rare, while they are among the hallmarks of Biber's music. And he doesn't shy away from surprises. Using a scordatura tuning in a sonata is one thing, but Sonata VI requires a retuning in the middle of the piece. Like Schmelzer, Biber may have often improvised, and this is indicated by the opening and closing of Sonata I, where the violin moves over a pedal point. Biber also repeatedly resorted to the form of variation. Lina Tur Bonet recorded the sonatas I, III, V and VI, and in the first three there is a section entitled Variatio, whereas in Sonata VI we find one entitled Passagagli. In the liner-notes to his recording of the entire collection (Symphonia, 1994), Gunar Letzbor points out that the sonatas follow an particular order in their sequence of keys. This is lost in a selection. From the fact that Lina Tur Bonet only recorded four of the eight sonatas we probably may conclude that the remaining four are going to be recorded in due course. The programme is extended with the Partia VII from Harmonia artificioso-ariosa from 1696, for two viole d'amore and basso continuo. One could describe the interpretations by Lina Tur Bonet and her colleagues as theatrical in their treatment of dynamics and tempo, which emphasizes the contrasts within each single piece. This is reinforced by the sizeable line-up of the basso continuo. The result is a captivating performance of these brilliant sonatas. I don't know how many recordings of these works exist, but Biber fans should definitely not miss this production.

Among the best-known and most frequently recorded works by Biber are the so-called Mystery Sonatas [3]. They have become known under this title - at least in the English-speaking world; in German they are called Rosenkranz-Sonaten. We do not know what title Biber gave his sonatas, as they were never printed and the title page has been lost. The collection includes fifteen sonatas for violin and basso continuo and a passacaglia for unaccompanied violin. In the manuscript there is an engraving for each sonata, which depicts one of the mysteries of the rosary. The sonatas are divided into three sections of five sonatas each: the joyful mysteries (from the Annunciation to the visit of twelve-year-old Jesus to the temple), the sorrowful mysteries (from Christ's passion in Gethsemane to his crucifixion) and the glorious mysteries (resurrection and ascension of Christ, the descent of the Holy Ghost and assumption and coronation of Mary). The passacaglia is preceded by an image of a guardian angel with a child. Little is known for certain about the reasons of the composition, or the circumstances under which they were or should be performed. They are dedicated to the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg, Max Galdolph von Kuenberg. They may have been intended for performance in his private chapel during his meditations on the mysteries of the Rosary. But it is also possible that they were performed in the Aula Academica of the Jesuits in Salzburg. This aspect is not unimportant, for example with regard to acoustics and the question of which instruments are suitable for the basso continuo. In this aspect performers go very different ways. There are recordings with a large basso continuo group, consisting of string and keyboard instruments, and often also plucked instruments such as theorbo and harp. Some recordings were made in pretty large venues, others in more intimate surroundings. Lucie Sedláková Hulová and Jaroslav Tuma decided to record the sonatas in the Church of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary in Horni Police with a two-manual organ tuned to a'=415 Hz. I can't remember ever having heard a recording with such an organ. This recording could therefore represent an interesting alternative to the many available recordings. However, such a recording seems to me to be on shaky ground from a historical point of view. In my opinion, this music itself proves that it is not suitable for a large church space. The effects intended by Biber to depict the mysteries don't come off to full effect. However, that is also due to Lucie Sedláková Hulová's performance. Her playing as such is excellent and she produces a beautiful tone. However, in some sonatas, especially those about Christ's scourging and his crucifixion, I found her performances too harmless. Such pieces need a more dramatic approach. As I said, this production could be considered as an alternative, but it didn't really convince me.

In 1683 a collection of twelve sonatas by Biber was published in Nuremberg under the title Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum [4]. The full title reads in English translation: "Music sacred and profane for stringed instruments, arranged with art for the court and for the church." From this it can be concluded that these sonatas are suitable both for domestic use and for the liturgy. Like the Mystery Sonatas, they are dedicated to Biber's employer, Max Gandolph von Kuenburg. The first six sonatas are in five parts - for two violins, two violas and basso continuo - and the remaining six are in four parts: violin, two violas and basso continuo. One may assume that the first group was composed primarily for liturgical purposes because of the dense texture of the sound, which is reminiscent of the consort music of the renaissance and the early baroque period, and the second for the chamber. However, there is no fundamental difference between the two groups. Both contain solemn and dramatic, almost theatrical sections. In the second group, the part of the first viola does not differ significantly from that of the violin, and that is why it is played on the violin in the recording by Harmonie Universelle. The performers seem to have had liturgical performances in mind, as the heart of the basso continuo group is an organ built by Balthasar König in 1714 in the former monastery church of Nederehe, which has nine manual registers and an attached pedal. Between the two groups of sonatas, Francesco Corti plays the Toccata XII from the collection Apparatus musico-organisticus by Georg Muffat, who was Biber's colleague in Salzburg for several years. Harmonie Universelle is an excellent ensemble whose style of interpretation is clearly modelled after that of the former Musica antiqua Köln. This means: sharp articulation, clear dynamic contrasts and a wide range of colours, all rooted in the awareness of the rhetorical and affective nature of this repertoire. In short: an exciting and stylistically convincing interpretation of these great sonatas.

[1] Johann Heinrich Schmelzer: "Violin Sonatas"
Gunar Letzbor, violin; Ars Antiqua Austria
Pan Classics PC 10436 (© 2022) details

[2] Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber: "Violin Sonatas"
Lina Tur Bonet, violin; Musica Alchemica
Glossa GCD 924701 (© 2022) details

[3] Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber: "Rosenkranz-Sonaten"
Lucie Sedláková Hulová, violin; Jaroslav Tuma, organ
Arta F10256 (© 2020) details

[4] Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber: Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum
Harmonie Universelle/Florian Deuter, Mónica Waisman
Accent ACC 24357 (© 2019) details

Friday, August 19, 2022

Josquin, Der Noten Meister

2021 was Josquin year: he died in 1521. He was considered the greatest composer of the time and is still considered the greatest composer of the Renaissance. Who doesn't know his Ave Maria? A composer like Josquin does not need a commemoration. His music, both sacred and secular, is available on many discs. Even so, the commemoration of his death was the reason that several discs have been released. The Brabant Ensemble [1], directed by Stephen Rice, recorded ten motets, which are considered authentic. Rice, in his liner-notes, discusses at length the issue of authenticity, and mentions a number of pieces that have been and still are the subject of scholarly research with regard to their authorship. Josquin experts often have completely opposite views. Some pieces in the programme have been performed with parts that have been added by other composers. This was a pretty common practice, and has to be interpreted as a way to express admiration for Josquin. In some cases the additional parts may be from Josquin's own pen; in that case we have to do with early and later versions. As one may gather, this disc is quite interesting, and even those who have many recordings of Josquin's music in their collection, may find here something that they are not familiar with. If you purchase this disc, you are well advised to read first the liner-notes carefully. There is no need to specifically mention highlights; every piece is of superior quality. As far as the performances are concerned, these are very good. There are some moments in which the text is illustrated in the music, and these have not escaped the attention of the performers. There is just one issue, which concerns the Stabat mater. It is an exemple of a piece which is performed here with an additional part. Josquin's version is for five voices, here we get a six-part version, which has been preserved in a Czech manuscript, in which the text is 'protestantized'. The second section begins with the words "Christe verbum" instead of "Eia mater". For this recording, the additional part is performed with the original text. That is questionable, as Josquin's version was probably never performed with six voices. It would have been more plausible to use the 'protestant' text in all parts instead. That way it would have represented an interesting aspect of the Josquin reception in his time. It does not compromise my appreciation of this disc, which is a substantial addition to the Josquin discography.

It was common practice in the Renaissance to intabulate vocal music so that it could be played on a plucked instrument. This practice was by no means limited to secular music; sacred works could also be treated this way. It was also not uncommon for one or more parts to be performed vocally. Sebastian Ochsenkun mentioned this possibility in his Heidelberg tablature book. In Spain it was Diego Pisador, vihuela player and composer, who mentions this practice in his Libro de música de vihuela (1552), when he writes that he wants "the reader to know that all that is in this book I have done with great diligence and labour so that it might be correct and of great clarity without diminutions, so that players may recognise the voices easily as they are on the vihuela, and so that they might be able to sing them (...)". There are no fewer than eight Josquin Masses in this book. The composer was immensely popular in Spain, and his works can be found in intabulations in various collections of music for the vihuela, including those by Luys de Narváez and Alonso Mudarra. The aforementioned practice and the popularity of Josquin's music in Spain inspired Ariel Abramovich [2] to transcribe works by Josquin for the vihuela, in addition to some intabulations by Spanish composers, and to invite María Cristina Kiehr and Jonatan Alvarado to sing the vocal parts. Some of Josquin's best-known works are included, such as Nymphes, nappés, Praeter rerum seriem, Mille regretz and the above- mentioned Stabat mater. There are also some mass sections and the programme ends with Josquin's Déploration sur la mort d'Ockeghem. What is offered here is relatively unusual - not from a historical point of view, but from the perspective of today's performance practice. That is a shame because it offers the opportunity to listen to Josquin's music from a different angle. The performances are very good. María Cristina Kiehr and Jonatan Alvarado have the perfect voices for this repertoire and they blend superbly. Ariel Abramovich is a very fine and sensitive performer, which comes especially to the fore in Mille regretz, the only piece he performs alone. There is only point of criticism: the recording. It was done in a church and that was a bad idea. Singing to the vihuela was something taking place in intimate surroundings, not in a church. Due to the church acoustic, the voices are too dominant. They sound like soloists, but they are not. Originally, it was undoubtedly the vihuela player himself who sang to his playing. Today these roles are separated, but that is no reason to put the voices into the centre. I highly appreciate the concept of this recording as well as the actual performances. It is unfortunate that the recording damages the overall positive impression of this project.

The last disc offers French chansons, which in all likelihood date from two periods of Josquin's career. The first was when he was in the service of René 'le Bon' d'Anjou (in the 1470s) and the second when he had settled back in his native region at the end of his career (after 1504). These songs are heavily inspired by simple folk songs; it is known that René d'Anjou and his second wife, Jeanne de Laval, not only had a great interest in literature and art, but also loved the simple life, and occasionally disguised themselves as shepherds. Denis Raisin Dadre, the director of the ensemble Doulce Mémoire [3], took the connection to folk culture as an opportunity to compare chansons with folk songs. This enabled him to increase the number of stanzas in some cases. By the way, there are not only pieces by Josquin here. His Ma bouche rit is preceded by Ockeghem's version, with partly different lyrics, and Scaramella va alla guerra is based on a version by Loyset Compère (Scaramella fa la galla). There are also a few instrumental works from the Lochamer Liederbuch, whose relation to Josquin is unclear. In that respect the documentation leaves something to be desired. The programme also includes some of Josquin's most popular works, the authenticity of which is very much in doubt: El grillo and In te domine speravi'. I have rarely heard the latter work performed as nicely as here: the soprano Clara Coutouly sings it extraordinarily beautifully, with imaginative embellishments. In contrast, let's forget the caricatural treatment of El grillo. All in all, I really like this disc: the performances by the singers are first class, and the instruments - recorders and shawms - are also played excellently. Independent of the level of interpretation, this production has several things to offer that makes it an interesting addition to Josquin's discography. The booklet includes an informative introduction to Josquin and his oeuvre by David Fallows.

Another disc with music by Josquin has been released recently at the Aparté label. I was looking forward to that one, as the performers are the members of the ensemble thélème, whose disc with chansons by Claude Le Jeune and Clément Janequin I rated positively. However, reading the booklet caused disappointment. In some items instruments from an entirely different world participate: the ondes Martinot, the Fender Rhodes and the Buchla synthesizer. For me, these are completely unknown quantities: I have not heard them and I have not the slightest desire to change that. Therefore I decided not to review this disc: I have neither the time nor the appetite to listen to this kind of nonsense, which has nothing to do with historical performance practice.

[1] "Motets & Mass Movements"
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
Hyperion CDA68321 (© 2021) details

[2] "The Josquin Songbook"
María Cristina Kiehr, soprano; Jonatan Alvarado, tenor; Ariel Abramovich, vihuela
Glossa GCD 923529 (© 2021) details

[3] "Tant vous aime"
Doulce Mémoire/Denis Raisin Dadre
Ricercar RIC 436 (© 2022) details

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Italian keyboard, 1540 - 1670

Keyboard music was an important genre in renaissance and early baroque Italy. Organists in particular enjoyed great prestige, and positions as organist in an important church or cathedral were in high demand. Only the best were considered. They were also often active as composers, writing pieces such as toccata, canzona and ricercar. Such works can usually be played both on the organ and on a stringed keyboard instrument (harpsichord, virginal, spinet). They were also often used in the liturgy. In addition, versetti suitable for the alternatim practice, such as Masses and Magnificats, were composed. These are the main part of the oeuvre of Girolamo Cavazzoni (c1525-after 1577) [1]. When and where he was born is not known exactly, and we don't know much about his career either. The libretto of the Brilliant Classics production claims that he was appointed organist at Mantua Cathedral in 1521, but this is of course impossible. There is no evidence that he was in the service of the Gonzagas; all that is certain is that he oversaw the building of the organ in this cathedral in 1565/66. Federico Del Sordo recorded all of his organ works on this same organ, built by Graziadio Antegnati. They are included in two collections; the first was printed in 1543, the second, whose title page has been lost, probably appeared before 1549. They comprise four ricercars, two canzonas on French chansons (Josquin's Fault d'argent and Passereau's Il est bel et bon), twelve hymns, four Magnificats and three Masses. The last three categories are alternatim compositions; the plainchant is sung here by the Nova Schola Gregoriana, and the chants are taken from two sources from around 1600. Del Sordo explains how the alternatim practice was subject to certain rules that were not always followed. Among these rules was that the passage in the Creed concerning the Incarnation of Christ (et incarnatus est) was not to be played, but was always to be sung. The first verse of the Magnificat should also always be performed vocally. This has consequences for the relationship between the text and the organ verses. In addition to the collections mentioned, there are two ricercares that have been included in anthologies. One is played on the harpsichord, the other is intended for an instrumental ensemble, but can - as here - also be played on the organ. Federico Del Sordo is a specialist in the alternatim repertoire, and in early Italian keyboard music in general. His interpretations are excellent. The tempi are slightly slower here than in Ivana Valotti's recording on the same organ. I appreciate both, and if you don't have Valotti's recording, you'll get your money's worth with this edition on a budget label. The booklet includes details of the instruments used. Unfortunately the lyrics are missing, but you can find them on the internet.

It is not surprising that many Italian composers of music for a keyboard instrument are hardly known today: they are overshadowed by a few great masters whose music is frequently played and recorded. Strictly speaking, this does not apply to Giovanni Picchi (1572-1643) [2], whose name is well known, if only because one of the most famous collections of harpsichord works, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, contains a toccata from his pen. However, his music is not played very often. If I'm not mistaken, it was Ton Koopman who first produced a recording of his complete works, at the very beginning of his career, still in the vinyl age. As far as I know it was never re-released on CD - unfortunately. But now there is a new complete recording: the Italian harpsichordist and organist Simone Stella, of whom Brilliant Classics has already released several recordings, is responsible for a production in which - in addition to the oeuvre of Picchi - music by Venetian composers of earlier generations can be heard. These are Annibale Padovano (1527-1575), Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli (c1533-1585 and 1557-1612 respectively), Vincenzo Bellavere (c1540-1587) and Claudio Merulo (1533-1604). They were all respected masters of their craft, and so were the least known: Padovano was first organist at St. Mark's from 1552 to 1566, and Bellavere also served as organist in that church, but only nine months, as soon after his appointment he passed away. By including these organists, Picchi is put into his historical context. And the comparison shows that his music is by no means inferior to that of the others. Nevertheless, it was not easy for him to find suitable positions. Only one collection of his keyboard music was printed: the Intavolatura di Balli d'Arpicordo appeared in 1621 and contains nine pieces. There are also five works that have veen preserved in manuscript, and the Toccata from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Where other composers mostly wrote pieces that can be performed both on the organ and on a stringed keyboard instrument, nearly all of Picchi's works can only be played on the harpsichord, since they are entirely dominated by dance rhythms, as their titles - Ballo, Padoana, Saltarello - indicate. Perhaps only a few passemezzi may be playable on the organ. Simone Stella has chosen the harpsichord; he plays a copy of an instrument by Carlo Grimaldi. Stylistically, his interpretation is comparable to that of Koopman: rhythmically succinct, sharply articulated and at a relatively fast tempo, in accordance with the character of the work in question. The music included here is pretty exciting, and that comes off perfectly in Simone Stella's interpretations.

In comparison, the keyboard music of Michelangelo Rossi (c1601/02-1656) [3] is played much more frequently. There are several recordings of his equally modest oeuvre for harpsichord or organ. Although he was primarily known as a violinist, not a single work for violin has come down to us. He also composed vocal music, but little attention is paid to this part of his oeuvre. He is best known for his Toccate e correnti d'intavolatura d'organo e cembalo: these twenty pieces were published in Rome in 1657. The Toccata VII has become particularly famous, because towards the end the dissonances accumulate: these are the extreme consequences of the mean-tone temperament. The toccata is a free form that emerges from the practice of improvisation, and this requires a free treatment of tempo. It's no wonder that strong fluctuations in tempo are one of the features of Lorenzo Feder's interpretation, released by fra bernardo. He plays the correntes much more strictly, which is justified by the dance rhythm. In addition to the toccatas and correntes, he plays three other works that have survived in manuscript: two ciacconas and the Partita sopra La Romanesca. Feder has chosen to perform all the pieces on the harpsichord; most other performers alternate between harpsichord and organ. This also has consequences for the choice of tempo: a performance on an organ usually requires a somewhat slower tempo, especially because of the acoustics in a church. Nevertheless: compared to some other recordings - for example by Sergio Vartolo and Riccardo Castagnetti - Feder's tempi are generally very fast. Perhaps the dissonances in Toccata VII may have come out more clearly in a more modest tempo. Even so, I appreciate this recording very much, and I find these performances quite captivating. Feder plays a harpsichord by Willem Kroesbergen after Bartolomeo Stefanini (1694), which proves to be the ideal instrument for this music.

Whereas Rossi has achieved fame mainly because of his Toccata VII, Bernardo Storace (c1637-after 1664) [4] achieved something comparable with his Ciaccona, which is played and recorded frequently. It is a brilliant work which undoubtedly testifies to the composer's ability as a harpsichord and organ virtuoso. However, there is more to his oeuvre and it is nice that all the works of this man, of whom we know next to nothing, are now available on CD. I don't know whether another complete recording is on the market; if so, I have not heard it. Enrico Viccardi plays four different instruments: two organs from the 18th century, a copy of a Grimaldi harpsichord and a spinet, which is based on models from the second half of the 17th century. In Storace's oeuvre we find the common genres of his time: capriccios, passemezzi, ricercares, correntes, passacagli, toccatas (interestingly followed here by a fugal canzon), some dances (ballo, ballet) as well as various pieces on bassi ostinati that were popular at the time, such as Follia, Monica, Spagnoletta and Ruggiero. The second disc closes with a pastoral. According to the title page, these works can be played on both the harpsichord and the organ. It is left to the performer to make a choice. All in all, I can agree with Viccardi's decisions, with one exception: the above-mentioned Ciaccona is played here on the organ. I only know of recordings on the harpsichord, and I think that's the most suitable instrument. The performance on organ offered here did not convince me. The piece contains some abrupt transitions, and these are underplayed on the organ, due to the spatial acoustics. Incidentally, the performances on the organ are the best. Viccardi plays the pieces on harpsichord and spinet well, but here I missed that little bit of inspiration that makes an interpretation really compelling. It wasn't always easy for me to keep my concentration, especially in some of the longer pieces. Nevertheless, anyone who is interested in Italian keyboard music of the 17th century should get hold of this production.

G Cavazzoni: "Complete Organ Music"
Federico Del Sordo, organ; Nova Schola Gregoriana/Alberto Turco
Brilliant Classics 96192 (© 2021) details

Picchi: "Complete Harpsichord Music and other Venetian Gems"
Simone Stella, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95998 (© 2021) details

M Rossi: "Toccate e Corrente"
Lorenzo Feder, harpsichord
fra bernardo fb 1907498 (© 2019) details

Storace: "Complete Harpsichord and Organ Music"
Enrico Viccardi, harpsichord, spinet, organ
Brilliant Classics 95455 (© 2021) details