Berlin Sonatas
Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787)
Sonata for violoncello and basso continuo in G major [WKO 147] (1782) [8:20]
Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH (1732-1795)
Sonata for violoncello and basso continuo in A major (1770) [12:04]
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Claviersonata in G Major Wq 62/19 [11:11]
Franz BENDA (1709-1786)
Progressive etude No. 25: Allegro moderato (pub. 1814) [1:16]
Caprice No. 16: Moderato (pub. 1800/4) [3:11]
Johann Philipp KIRNBERGER (1721-1783)
Sonata for violoncello and basso continuo in C major (1769) [15:17]
Carl Friedrich ABEL
Sonata for violoncello and basso continuo in A major [WKO 148] [8:50]
Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1704-1759)
Sonata for Violoncello Solo in C major, GraunWV B:XVII:53 [13:42]
Elinor Frey (five-string cello)
Lorenzo Ghielmi (Silbermann fortepiano)
Marc Vanscheeuwijck (bass violin (Abel WKO 148))
rec. 15-17 September 2014, Chiesa dei Ss. Eusebio e Vittore, Peglio, Italy
PASSACAILLE 1006 [74:04]

The five-string cello isn’t encountered very often these days, but Elinor Frey’s booklet notes for this release tell us that it was once a member of the bass violin family and by no means as uncommon as it is today. Bach’s Sixth Suite specifies such a cello, and there are certain technical advantages to having, literally, an extra string on which to apply one’s bow.

The sound of the cellos in this recording are somewhere between a normal cello and an earlier gamba style instrument – fairly bright in tone and with a less deep ‘singing voice’ than you might expect. Having it expertly accompanied on the fortepiano puts us straight into the right period and mood for some superb 18th century chamber music.

Carl Friedrich Abel brings us in with stylish aplomb, the cello being explored over its whole range, with double-stops and some fun little flageolet flourishes. This is light entertainment but none the worse for that. The central Adagio is charming, and the final Rondeau is played using the ‘pantaleone’ stop on the piano, which makes it sound like a hammered dulcimer. The Sonata in A major further along with basso continuo isn’t quite as exciting but introduces yet another colour combination into this surprisingly varied programme.

Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach’s Sonata in A major uses the slow-fast-slow movement order known in some quarters as the “Berlin schema”. This along with brother C.P.E. Bach’s Claviersonata brings us into the expressive world of the Empfindsamer stil, in which dynamic change and melodic shapes both dramatic and intimately confiding can exist in close proximity. Carl Philip Emanuel’s solo sonata makes a fine companion to J.C.F. Bach’s enjoyable but less adventurous work. C.P.E. Bach’s music still has the element of surprise, the spiky little notes flying out of the opening Allegro assai movement keeping us guessing and gasping. Lorenzo Ghielmi plays with attractive wit, the central Andante played with a knowing smile, and the virtuoso final Presto with swinging rhythmic verve.

Franz Benda’s didactic solo pieces give the cello something of a workout, but have also absorbed some of that Empfindsamkeit so beloved of the Bach brothers. The two short pieces also give us a break from the fortepiano – not that this is really needed, but making its return in Johann Philipp Kirnberger’s Sonata in C major all the more welcome. Kirnberger is known for his theoretical work, but also composed for his employer Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia. The Princess owned three fortepianos and was clearly a fan of the expressive potential in this instrument, here heard at its best in the spread chords and suspensions in the central Adagio. Little chromatic surprises juice things up along the way, and the last movement is a substantial and wide-ranging Cantabile e variazioni.

The final work is left to Carl Heinrich Graun, a Sonata in C major which also exists in a version with flute. Graun was educated in Dresden but became leader of Frederick the Great’s court orchestra. This is a fine work with plenty of space left for, and gratefully taken up by the soloist for some lovely cadenza-like improvisation. Graun’s music is more stately and certainly not given to jokes in the way C.P.E. Bach’s music can be, but one can imagine hearing such music at a distance and being attracted into the candle-lit hall in which the music is happening.

Indeed, all of the music and the way it has been recorded and performed creates a magnetic effect. I am full of admiration for all of these musicians and the way they have brought these Berlin Sonatas to life. These may seem at first glance like a dry selection of composers but nothing could be further from the truth. We’re given a healthy dose of “the mid-century Berlin aesthetic” and come away feeling enlightened, elevated, and royally entertained.

Dominy Clements  

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