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Extravagantes Seicento - Sonatas for violin and viola da gamba at the Habsburg Court
Ignazio ALBERTINI (c1644-1685)
Sonata I for violin and basso continuo in d minor [7:11]
Giovanni Antonio PANDOLFI MEALLI (1624-1670)
Sonata II for violin and basso continuo in a minor, op. 3,2 'La Cesta' [6:49]
Johann Kaspar KERLL (1627-1693)
Ciaccona for keyboard in C [2:17]
Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (1620-1680)
Sonata IX for violin, viola da gamba and basso continuo in a minor [4:56]
Sonata V for violin and basso continuo in e minor [10:48]
anon
Sonatina viola de gamba aut violino solo [12:02]
Samuel Friedrich CAPRICORNUS (1628-1665)
Ciaccona a 2 for violin, viola da gamba and basso continuo in d minor [4:52]
Girandole Armoniche
rec. 2017, San Leonardo, Badia (Bz), Italy
ARCANA A113 [57:17]

The Habsburg dynasty was one of the most powerful in Europe from the early 13th to the early 19th century. It was also a major power in artistic matters. It attracted the best musicians and composers to serve at its courts. Their high standard was a reflection of the power and splendour of the rulers. The imperial court in Vienna was one of the main musical centres, especially from 1640 to 1740, under the emperors Ferdinand III, Leopold I, Joseph I and Charles VI. All four were also active in music themselves, both as performers and as composers.

Vocal music - music for the liturgy, but also oratorios and operas - played an important role in courtly music life, but there was also much interest in instrumental music. The present disc includes music by some composers who worked at the court in Vienna. However, the subtitle of this disc has to be taken with a grain of salt, as although Biber and Pandolfi Mealli worked for a number of years in Austria, they were not formally connected to the court, even though their music may have been played there. However, the programme shows a strong stylistic coherence between the various composers and compositions.

Most of the pieces are sonatas. That does not tell us that much about their texture: they are all from the time before Corelli laid down the basic structure of the solo and trio sonata. Most sonatas in the programme are rooted in the stylus phantasticus, and comprise a sequence of contrasting sections, which are not formally separated, but mostly follow each other attacca.

Since the early 17th century, the court in Vienna had been under the spell of the Italian style, and many Italian performing musicians and composers were employed by the successive emperors. The composition and performance of vocal music was largely dominated by Italians, and they also played a major role in the performance of instrumental music. Antonio Bertali was one of them; he also acted as Kapellmeister for many years. The present disc opens with a sonata for violin and basso continuo by another master from Italy: Ignazio Albertini. He was probably from Milan and, like many other Italian musicians, went north to look for employment. He was in the service of the Prince-Bishop of Olomouc, Karl Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn, and later the imperial court in Vienna. Leopold I granted him a subsidy for the costs of the printing of a collection of twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo, which only appeared seven years after the composer's violent death. At that time, he was in the service of the dowager Empress Eleonora. The sonatas have no regular pattern or a fixed number of sections. That makes them typical specimens of an age of experimentation and compositional freedom. The Sonata No. 1 in d minor opens with a prelude in improvisatory style. Albertini's sonatas are virtuosic, as one would expect from a composer who was a professional violinist, and are full of dramatic contrasts; that also goes for this particular sonata, which includes double stopping.

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, probably a pupil of the above-mentioned Bertali, was one of the few non-Italian musicians who was employed at the court, first as violinist, and from 1679 also as Kapellmeister, as successor to Giovanni Felice Sances, but only one year later he died of the plague. Schmelzer wrote mostly music for his own instrument. He is represented here with two sonatas from the main collections of music for strings. The Sonata IX in a minor is for violin, viola da gamba and basso continuo, and is taken from the collection Duodena selectarum sonatarum of 1659. Schmelzer omits any indications of the way it has to be performed, such as tempo. The Sonata IV in D is for solo violin and basso continuo, and is included in the collection Sonatae unarum fidium of 1664. Its structure is rather unusual: it comprises a passacaglia with variations, followed by a sarabanda. It shows that composers at the time used the term sonata for very different pieces. This technically challenging work also attests to Schmelzer's own brilliance as a performer.

The passacaglia was one of various bassi ostinati (repeated bass patterns) which were used as the foundation of compositions at the time, in music for instrumental ensemble as well as in keyboard works. A specimen of the latter is the Ciaccona in C by Johann Kaspar Kerll. He was born into a Protestant family in Bohemia. He became organist at the court of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Vienna, which probably led to his conversion to Catholicism. He received lessons from the imperial Hofkapellmeister Giovanni Valentini. He was sent to Rome to study with Carissimi; there he composed his earliest works. In 1656 he became Hofkapellmeister at the court of the Bavarian elector Ferdinand Maria in Munich, where he stayed until 1673. His reputation became such that he received various gratuities and was even given noble rank by emperor Leopold I in 1664. From 1677 on he was organist at the imperial court in Vienna. The Ciaccona in C is based on a descending ground bass.

This basso ostinato could also be treated in a less strict manner. That is the case in the Ciaccona a 2 in d minor by Samuel Friedrich Capricornus. He is one of the lesser-known composers of the 17th century. He was born in Schertitz (Zercice) in Bohemia and baptised with the name of Samuel Friedrich Bockshorn. In order to escape from religious persecution his family fled to upper Hungary. In 1643 Capricornus went to Silesia to study Latin, theology and philosophy. After a short sojourn in Strasbourg he went to Vienna where he came into contact with the main musicians who served at the imperial court, such as Giovanni Valentini, Antonio Bertali, Wolfgang Ebner, Froberger and Giovanni Felice Sances. Here he came under the influence of the Italian style, which had a decisive influence on his development as a composer. During the last years of his life he worked at the court in Stuttgart. The Ciaccona played here is taken from the Partiturbuch Ludwig, a collection of 107 pieces, which the musician and writer Jacob Ludwig (1623-1698) sent to Duke August of Brunswick and his wife Sophie Elisabeth to celebrate the former's 83rd birthday on 10 April 1662. In this collection we also find pieces by Schmelzer and Bertali. Valeria Mannoia, in her liner-notes, states that the ciaccona "is a fairly short composition, which reinterprets the Italian chaconne's resolution with simple variations of the violin and the viola da gamba. Capricornus deliberately uses an irregular resolution of the ostinato bass of the chaconne (...)". The fact that this piece is not very virtuosic can probably be explained by the fact that Capricornus was not a violinist by profession.

The remaining two pieces in the programme are not formally connected to the court in Vienna. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber worked for most of his life in Innsbruck. He has become best-known for his so-called 'Mystery Sonatas' as well as his frequent application of the scordatura technique. He does not use it in the Sonata V in e minor from the collection Sonatae violino solo. In its sequence of contrasting sections, it is a typical product of the stylus phantasticus. Considering the brilliance and the variety of Biber's music, it is hardly surprising that in the middle of the piece he turns to a basso ostinato.

The anonymous Sonatina viola da gamba aut violino solo which has been preserved in a manuscript in Kremsier, has been attributed to Biber. It is played here on the viola da gamba. It opens with a sonatina which has the traits of a sonata of the kind we have heard before on this disc. Then follow four dances, in the order which developed into the standard during the second half of the 17th century: allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue. Especially the opening sonatina is quite virtuosic, and not fundamentally different from the violin pieces included here.

One can only admire the performances by the three players of Girandole Armoniche. Technically, their performances are very impressive; they fully meet the high demands of these sonatas. But they also delve deep into these pieces. This is not merely a demonstration of brilliant playing, this is music making of the highest order. It is especially important to explore the contrasts between the various sections in a piece, and the performers leave nothing to be desired in that respect. These are engaging and compelling performances, and although some of the pieces, such as Pandolfi Mealli's sonata, have been recorded several times before, even those who are familiar with this kind of music will find here some items they may not know.

In short, this is great stuff, excellently performed.

Johan van Veen



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