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Music at the Habsburg Court
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Concerto for Violin in A minor, RV358 – “La Cetra” [7:44]
Angelo RAGAZZI (1680-1750)
Sonata a 4 for Violin, Strings & Continuo, Op.1 No.8 [8:39]
Sonata a 4 for Violin, Strings & Continuo, Op.1 No.6 [12:15]
Joseph UMSTATT (1711-1762)
Concerto No.6 for Violin in B flat [7:08]
Concerto No.5 for Violin in C [7:26]
Joseph TIMMER (1708-1771)
Concerto a 5 for Violin, strings & Continuo in B flat [18; 16]
Cappella Gabetta, Andrés Gabetta (violin and director)
rec. 2-6 July 2015, LA Nef des Dominicans, Guebwiller, France
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 88875 194662 [62:05]

Accustomed as we are to associating Antonio Vivaldi with Venice, and linking his numerous concertos to the girls of the Ospedale de la Pietŕ, it might at first sight seem strange to find him represented on a disc devoted to music for the Habsburg Court in Vienna. But Vivaldi apparently had a burning desire to leave Venice and secure an appointment in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI. By way of a curriculum vitae he dedicated a set of concertos to Charles and attempted to curry favour still further by calling them “La Cetra”, after the lyre which was traditionally identified as the symbol of a ruling dynasty. To a certain extent the ploy worked and Vivaldi got an audience with Charles in Trieste in 1728. On that occasion Vivaldi presented the king with another set of concertos similarly entitled “La Cetra” which Charles took back to Vienna with him and where the manuscripts still reside. As for Vivaldi, he never received any definite offer of employment, although for the next decade he continued to hold out hopes and claimed at one point to have been summoned to Vienna (something which, so far, history can neither confirm nor deny).

The Vivaldi concerto on this disc comes from the first set of Concertos for Charles, and is something of oddity in that it is cast in the archaic (for Vivaldi) four movement form. The slow movements (1st and 3rd) have an austere, desolate quality, while the two fast movements are as flamboyant and virtuoso-laden as the famous L’estro armonico set which, almost two decades earlier had made Vivaldi’s reputation when they were first published in Amsterdam. As Giovanni Sechi suggests in his booklet note, would this kind of extravagant virtuoso display “ever have been able to satisfy Charles VI’s conservative and contrapuntal tastes?”

Whatever Charles VI would have made of Vivaldi’s A minor concerto, this crisp and purposeful performance by the period ensemble which takes its name from its violinist/director, Andrés Gabetta, certainly sells it to me. There is something robust and honest about the playing which communicates itself through a wonderful clarity of texture and a most invigorating approach to the quick-fire repartee of the dramatic final movement.

Another Italian, Angelo Ragazzi, had a much closer association with Charles VI, having first served him when, before his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor, Charles was King of Spain. On Charles’s elevation, Ragazzi moved, along with most of the musical establishment in Barcelona, to the Vienna Hofkapelle, where he remained for 10 years before being appointed to a post in Naples, still under the Habsburg rule. Political unrest obliged Ragazzi to return to Vienna and seek the Emperor’s protection, and in return for this he presented Charles with his only published composition, a set of Sonatas for violin, strings and continuo. He had the affront to describe himself on the title page as the Emperor’s “Director of Instrumental Music”, but Charles played into his hands and duly appointed him to that post in the Hofkapelle in 1736.
One can understand why Charles was so impressed with Ragazzi’s work. The Eighth Sonata opens with an almost percussive piece of quasi-regal pomp, perhaps partially undermined by the extreme energy of Cappella Gabetta’s exuberant playing, and there are plenty of small contrapuntal devices to pander to the king’s taste for such things. Most notable are the violent changes of direction in the music, which are given added impact by the extremely colourful and dramatically driven playing of Gabetta himself. I particularly like the abrupt and no-nonsense way in which they end the Eighth Sonata.

Both the other composers represented on the disc were native Viennese. Joseph Ferdinand Timmer came from a line of Viennese musicians about whom surprisingly little is known. Grove dismisses Timmer with the words “his compositions are rather unattractive”, but while the Concerto on this disc is not the most distinguished nor memorable work here, it has much to commend it, not least the sprightly solo violin part of the first movement with its frequent echo effects and, in the third movement, some breathtaking virtuoso display. The many sudden changes of key and metre add spice to some otherwise relatively mundane musical ideas and possibly compensate for a certain lack of coherence in the music as a whole. This is hailed as the work’s first recording, and such is the vitality with which these musicians tackle it, that one feels its debut is long overdue.

The most interesting and rewarding music on this disc comes from the pen of Joseph Umstatt, who was the young Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s music teacher. His association with the Esterházy family ended, and Umstatt cropped up subsequently in Brno, Dresden and Bamberg (where he died the year after Haydn had entered the service of the Esterházy family). His music was well known across Europe for some years after his death, and it appears from the manuscript source of the two violin concertos recorded here, in the possession of the Austrian National Library that, on leaving the Esterházy employ, he petitioned Charles VI for a post at the court in Vienna. That he did not succeed may be down to the obvious influence of Vivaldi on these works. That said, neither of his two concertos on this disc is anything other than an entirely original composition with a very distinct individual voice. Of particular note is the enchanting little conversational echoes in the slow movement of No.6 which the players of Cappella Gabetta handle with delicious delicacy.

Historically interesting as the programme is, it comes to life in these enthusiastic performance. Every opportunity is taken for coloristic variety, Gabetta himself proves to be a suitably flamboyant soloist and his ensemble follows along with great relish. The recording is greatly enhanced by the venue, a 14th century convent in the Alsace renowned for its exceptional acoustics.

Marc Rochester



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