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Viola Music of the Bach Family Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Sonata for keyboard and viola da gamba in g minor (Wq 88 / H 541) [17:26] Johann Joachim QUANTZ (1697-1773)
Sonata for viola and bc in a minor (QV 1,114) [10:17] Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH (1732-1795)
Concerto for keyboard, viola and orchestra in E flat (BR JCFB C 44): Larghetto cantabile [6:10] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Wo soll ich fliehen hin (BWV 5): Ergieße dich reichlich, du göttliche Quelle, aria [5:32] Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710-1784)
Sonata for keyboard and viola in c minor [20:07]
Roger Myers (viola), Céline Frisch (harpsichord)
Recorded 2016 at the Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg, Germany DDD NOTOS 001 [59:45]
Discs with music for the viola seldom land on my desk. The present disc could well be the very first. The main reason may be that not that much music for the viola was written during the baroque period.
Historically the word 'viola' could refer to various kinds of instruments. In the 17th and early 18th centuries it was used for an instrument which could be played in two different registers: alto and tenor, for instance in Albinoni's Sinfonie e concerti a cinque op. 2 (1700). In both cases it acted as an "instrument of the middle", as New Grove states. This is confirmed by Roger Myers in his liner-notes to the present disc. He mentions that the baroque era favoured higher-pitched voices and instruments. "The chief aesthetic was almost always about the polarity between the basso continuo and the melodic line(s). Instruments commonly used in ensemble music, therefore, were featured comparatively less in solo contexts". That said, he questions the common belief that very little music for viola solo was written in the baroque and pre-classical periods. There is more than one might think, and that was one of the incentives to put together a programme of music which focuses on compositions by members of the Bach family.
It is well known that some famous composers had a strong liking of the viola. One of them was Mozart, the other Johann Sebastian Bach. Carl Philipp Emanuel stated about his father that "as the greatest expert and judge of harmony he liked best to play the viola". However, he never composed a concerto or a sonata for it. The best-known viola parts are those in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, in which two violas take care of the upper parts. The viola was used in six cantatas as an obbligato instrument in arias. One of them is 'Ergieße dich reichlich, du göttliche Quelle' from the cantata Wo soll ich fliehen hin (BWV 5). In this performance the basso continuo is played with the left hand on the harpsichord, whereas the vocal part, scored for tenor, is realised with the right hand, an octave above written pitch.
The programme opens with a work by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach himself. The Sonata in g minor has come down to us in two versions, one for viola da gamba, the other for viola. It seems likely that the former is the original version. Emanuel composed several viola da gamba sonatas, as this instrument took a prominent place in Frederick the Great's chapel, because of the presence of Ludwig Christian Hesse, a true virtuoso on this instrument. But in his time the viola da gamba had lost its prominent position in music life at large, and therefore an alternative instrument was needed.
One of the most prominent members of Frederick's chapel was Johann Joachim Quantz, who was also the King's flute teacher. His oeuvre comprises almost exclusively compositions for the transverse flute, and he wrote a treatise on playing this instrument. It may therefore surprise that we get here a sonata for viola and basso continuo from his pen. A catalogue of 1762 of Breitkopf includes the opening bars of this sonata. Myers turned to the complete catalogue of Quantz's oeuvre and discovered a flute sonata in g minor which obviously was the original version. He decided to reconstruct the arrangement for viola, and the result is the sonata included here.
To some extent the Sonata in c minor by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is also surprising. We know very little chamber music from his pen. It includes six duets for two violas, but the work-list in New Grove does not mention the sonata played here, and the track-list omits a number in the catalogue of his works. On the internet I learned that this sonata is attributed to either Wilhelm Friedemann or to Johann Gottlieb Graun. The latter seems a logical option, as his oeuvre includes some other sonatas for the viola. Moreover, Graun's chamber music is generally more virtuosic than Friedemann's, and this viola sonata certainly is technically demanding, and includes double stopping. The issue of authenticity is not discussed in the liner-notes.
The fourth member of the Bach family represented in the programme is Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, generally known as the 'Bückeburg Bach'. In his oeuvre we find a number of solo and double concertos. As he was a keyboard player by profession, most of the concertos are for keyboard, undoubtedly intended for his own use. In two the keyboard is joined by another instrument, the oboe and the viola respectively. Here we hear the slow movement from the latter. The tutti are omitted here, but Myers states that in this movement there is "virtually no orchestral accompaniment", and therefore a performance with viola and harpsichord doesn't give any real problems.
Undoubtedly this is a most interesting disc. CPE Bach's sonata has been recorded before, but obviously Quantz's sonata is new to the catalogue, and the same probably goes for Wilhelm Friedemann's sonata, unless someone has recorded it under the name of Graun. Myers plays a viola by J.B. Guadagnini of 1763 and the copy of a baroque bow. I wonder whether the viola is really in its original condition or whether it has been modernized at some stage. It does sound a little too modern to my ears, but that is probably also due to Myers's playing. He is not a specialist in early music, and usually plays modern instruments. It seems to me that this is clearly audible in these performances, which are quite different from other performances of 18th-century music for the viola I have heard. Part of it is that Myers uses much more vibrato than is common practice in early music performances. I found the CPE Bach sonata rather disappointing, also because of the dominance of the viola; the harpsichord is underexposed here. The balance is better in Wilhelm Friedemann's sonata, which I find the most satisfying part of this disc. Bach's aria doesn't come off that well. The arrangement as such is legitimate, but it would have been much better if the bass and the tenor part had been performed at the organ. Here the harpsichord is again overshadowed by the viola.
Overall, I am a little in two minds about this disc. From the angle of repertoire it is highly recommendable, and those interested in the viola should certainly investigate it. However, the performances are not entirely convincing, and I feel that the interpretations are too much compromised by a rather 'modern' approach to this repertoire, despite the historical viola and bow.