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Berliner Gambenbuch
Suite G-Dur / in G major [9:54]
Weihnachts-Suite I / Christmas Suite I [8:00]
Weihnachts-Suite II / Christmas Suite II [3:55]
Suite d-Moll / in D minor [14:54]
Suite G-Dur / in G major (Skordatur) [8:55]
Passions-Suite g-Moll / in G minor (Skordatur) [9:42]
Oster-Suite / Easter Suite [6:30]
Suite B-Dur / in B flat major (Skordatur) [10:38]
Ensemble Art d’Echo (Kai Roterberg (vocal); Ophira Zakai (theorbo); Klaus Eichhorn (organ); Juliane Laake (viola da gamba/director))
rec. 2013, Andreaskirche, Berlin.
CAPRICCIO C5206 [72:28]

When I saw this title flagged up on the MWI reviewing list, with its ‘World Première Recordings’ heading, I was a little concerned that a tussle might break out in classical music land – you know, that one we all live in but from which only a few of us seem to want all those glorious amenities. Known for his recording of the Manchester Gamba Book on Naxos 8.572863-64 (review), Dietmar Berger also has a world première recording of music from the Berlin Gamba Book due to be released in June 2015. We can however relax a little. There are some inevitable overlaps, but Berger’s two-disc set focuses entirely on the chorale settings from this source, of which Juliane Laake uses only 18 of the 40 in the book so these releases will complement each other rather than result in unseemly viola da gamba bar brawls or calls for ‘fight, fight, fight’ at early music festivals.

The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris has a unique 17th century manuscript of music, a rather small leather-bound book but with 270 pages filled with music for solo viola da gamba. This was acquired by the Berlin library in 1880 and is generally thought to originate from the Brandenburg region in northern Germany. The history of this document is associated with Frederick William, known as the “Great Elector”, who reigned from 1640 to 1688. Frederick William played the treble viol, and the best players were attracted to the area to profit from this regally supported fashion for the instrument. The Berlin Gamba Book has however never been published in either its tablature-notated facsimile or in a modern edition, so any performance and recording is of necessity based on considerable research.

Juliane Laake has taken up the challenge of sifting through the book, examining works of which the authorship is often unknown and creating a musical programme with sufficient variety and narrative content to maintain interest. This is indeed a very fine selection of unknown pieces, annotated with substantial booklet notes. We’ve been told that this Berlin book is of solo pieces, but the decision has been made to include early hymnbook chorale settings with voice and accompanied using organ and theorbo, and these are put against the solo viol versions to illustrate the musical material used by the arranger. Sung texts are given, but only in the original German. This aspect of the programme works very well, with Kai Roterberg’s gentle tenor and the contrast of instrumental timbre resetting our ears and mind and allowing an appreciation of the ornamented and more abstract solo setting which follows.

Beautifully captured on this recording, the sound of the viola da gamba is quite haunting, and one of those returns to a long-lost past in which intimate music-making in small, private environments was an important feature – for those who could afford such refinements of course. If the Suite collections would have been ordered or performed in this way remains something of a guess, but Juliane Laake has created some magical sequences. The Suite in D minor is a highlight for the deeply fragile pizzicato of its central Sarabande, but all of these works contain finely nuanced delights to transport you into the ornately decorated and candle-lit salons of a 17th century ‘golden age’ of the viola da gamba.

Dominy Clements