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Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787)
Mr Abel's Fine Airs
Susan Heinrich (viola da gamba)
rec. 24-26 October, St. Andrew’s church, Toddington, Gloucestershire
HYPERION CDA67628 [77:48]

Adagio, WKO 189 [1:57]
Vivace, WKO 190 [4:46]
[Allegro] WKO 192 [4:27]
Tempo minuetto, WKO 154 [2:59]
Adagio, WKO 209 [3:36]
[Arpeggio], WKO 205 [2:48]
[Tempo di menuet con variazioni] WKO 203 & WKO 204 [3:40]
[Moderato] WKO 208 [5:47]
[Adagio] WKO 187 [4:18]
Fuga, WKO 196 [2:28]
Sonata in G major [7:48]
Allegro, WKO 198 [3:59]
Tempo di menuet, WKO 202 [3:29]
Andante, WKO 191 [4:20]
[Arpeggio], WKO 194 [2:32]
Allegro, WKO 207 [3:52]
Tempo di menuet, WKO 188 [1:31]
[Andante], WKO 199 [2:26]
[Allegro], WKO 195 [3:00]
Allegretto, WKO 211 [6:20]
Allegro, WKO 212 [1:32]

Abel was one of the most interesting members of that large body of expatriate musicians who played so large a part in the musical life of eighteenth-century London. Born in Cöthen, the young Abel very probably studied with J. S. Bach at the Thomasschule in Leipzig. He went on to work with Hasse’s opera orchestra in Dresden. In the late 1750s he moved to London (possible after a disagreement with Hasse) and worked there for the remainder of his life (save for a spell back in Germany between 1782 and 1784).

By the mid-1760s he and Johann Christian Bach – who had made his way to London in 1762 – were lodgers at Carlisle House, the house leased by the extraordinary Teresa Cornelys. Variously known also as Teresa Imer, Madame Trenti, Mademoiselle Pompeati and Mrs Smith, Cornelys sang roles in the operas of Gluck in Italy and London, was one of Casanova’s lovers, the mistress of the Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth and several others. She leased Carlisle House – at the corner of Soho Square and Sutton Street, now long demolished – in 1760 and established semi-private concerts there (with some additional attractions such as gambling). After scandal and financial collapse she ended life as ‘Mrs Smith’, keeping a herd of asses in Knightsbridge and dying in the Fleet prison for debtors in 1797. Abel and Bach organised a series a concerts at Carlisle House between 1763 and 1767. This was only one aspect of Abel’s musical life; he was extensively active as performer, composer, teacher and concert impresario. As a composer his output included more than forty symphonies and eighteen string quartets. Burney described him as "an infallible oracle" and "the umpire in all musical controversy". A sociable and gregarious man, fond of his food and drink, his circle of friends included artists and writers such as Thomas Gainsborough and Lawrence Sterne, Thomas Sheridan and John Horn Tooke. Sterne was a particular admirer, and is said to have been inspired to study the viola da gamba by the example of Abel’s playing. In one of Sterne’s letters, in praise of sensibility ("one of the first blessings of life"), he invokes the beauty of Abel’s playing in a striking comparison:

I was almost going to write – and wherefore should I not – that there is an amiable kind of gullibility, which is as superior to the slow precaution of worldly wisdom, as the sound of Abel’s Viol di Gamba to the braying of an ass on the other side of my paling.

Contemporaries recognised Sterne and Abel as artists whose work was characterised above all by its sensibility, which might be defined, in this context, as a kind of heightened capacity for refined emotion, an almost exaggerated readiness to be emotionally moved by the melancholy or pathetic in works of art. From contemporary accounts of Abel’s recitals on the viola da gamba it is clear that his playing was very much received in this spirit, both in his public performances and in private recitals. Peter Holman’s excellent booklet note for the present CD quotes Burney praising his "discretion, taste, and pathetic manner of expressing, I had almost said of breathing, a few notes".

Apart from some relevantly simple sonatas - there are more than fifty of them - for viola da gamba and bass, Abel’s surviving music for his favourite instrument is best represented by thirty unaccompanied pieces which survive in two autograph manuscripts, one in the British Library and the other in New York Public Library. It is material from these two manuscripts which is heard on this valuable issue from Hyperion.

Susan Heinrich negotiates with aplomb the often considerable technical demands that some of this music makes upon the performer; more important than that she responds – without ever going over the top – to the expressive sensibility which is at the heart of the music. This is not perhaps a disc that one will regularly listen to straight through. For all the skill and tonal variety of Heinrich’s playing there is no escaping the fact that almost all the music here is in D major or D minor and that the range of Abel’s effects is not so great as to preclude a certain repetitiveness. The listener who comes to this CD expecting something on a par with the Bach unaccompanied suites for cello will surely be disappointed; Abel is not a genius of J. S. Bach’s magnitude – but then, of course, very few composers are. He is an interesting, thoroughly competent figure whose work here ploughs a relatively narrow furrow, but does so with genuine inventiveness and personality, and with a certain emotional power - intellectual or formal powers are less obviously in evidence.

This is, I suppose, a disc which will largely appeal to those with a special interest in the instrument or the period, but others might be pleasantly surprised by the pleasure to be had from it. Certainly it is hard to imagine this music ever having a more persuasive advocate than Susan Heinrich. Her splendidly sympathetic performances benefit from a clear but warm recorded acoustic. This CD allows us to hear 24 of the 30 pieces to be found in British Library Add MS. 31697 and the Drexel MS 5871 in the New York Public Library. I, at least, am sad to be without the other six!

Glyn Pursglove


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