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Lully's Followers in Germany Georg MUFFAT (1653-1704)
Sonata No 2 in G minor [Armonico tributo] [19:22] Johann Caspar Ferdinand FISCHER (1656-1746)
Suite No 1 in C [Le Journal du Printemps] [09:24] Georg MUFFAT
Fasciculum I 'Nobilis Juventus oder Adeliche Jugend' [Florilegium Secundum] [11:05] Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767)
Overture in E-flat (TWV 55, Es4) [28:16]
El Gran Teatro del Mundo
Rec. 2021, Espace culturel C.J. Bonnet, Jujurieux, France AMBRONAY AMY314 [68:22]
The political ambitions of the French 'Sun King', Louis XIV, were feared across Europe, but the splendour of his court was widely admired. That was especially demonstrated at his court in Versailles, and many rulers wanted to create their own Versailles. The attraction of the French court included the music scene, dominated by the Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully, who had been appointed with the specific task of creating a French opera, as an alternative to the opera in the Italian style, which had conquered most of Europe. Not only did he succeed in creating an opera that was very different from the Italian, but he also set up an orchestra that clearly distinguished itself from the Italian-style orchestra that was common in most of Europe. The opera orchestra consisted of five parts (rather than four, as Italian orchestras) and included wind instruments that either played colla parte with the upper strings or in alternation with them, and were also given sort solo episodes to play.
In Germany the court orchestras followed the Italian line-up, with four parts (two violins, viola and bass) and no substantial role for winds. Some rulers ordered their Kapellmeister to travel to France to listen and learn, and to compose music in the style they had heard. They were generally known as Lullists. However, most composers were educated in the Italian style, and as Italian music continued to be played at the courts, they wrote music that mixed the various styles: the French and the Italian with the German tradition in which they were rooted.
The disc under review here includes music by three composers who were representatives of that mixed taste. Georg Muffat and Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer belong to the first generation, whereas Telemann is of the second generation, and that is reflected by their respective compositions. Georg Muffat was a pioneer in the creation of a truly 'European' style. He lived in a time of political conflict between France and other parts of Europe, and his printed editions of orchestral music were specifically intended to express the ideal of a peaceful coexistence. "The weapons of war and their causes are far away from me: notes, strings and lovely musical sounds are my exercise, and since I combine the French manner with the German and Italian styles, I do not incite war, but perhaps help to achieve a desirable concord between these peoples, playing for dear peace". Thus he stated in the preface to his collection of suites in the French style which he published in 1695 under the title of Florilegium primum. This preface was printed in four languages, another expression of his ideals.
In contrast, Fischer's set of eight suites that was printed in 1695 under the title of Le Journal du Printemps, is largely written in the French style. Interestingly, his suites are part of the Collection Philidor, a collection of scores of music performed at the French court. Most of the music is from the pen of French masters, but there are two exceptions: the opera Xerxes by the Italian composer Francesco Cavalli and the suites by Fischer. It suggests that Fischer had contact with the French court, although there is no documentary evidence of his presence in Paris.
Telemann's admiration of the French style is well documented, and he himself emphasized time and again that he preferred the French taste to the Italian style. Even his solo concertos - typical specimens of the Italian genre - did "smell of France", as he put it. He was the most prominent representative of the 'mixed taste' of his time, alongside colleagues such as Graupner, Fasch and Bach. One of the most obvious expressions of his French leanings are his many orchestral overtures, one of which is included here.
An interesting question is how to perform this kind of music. There can be little doubt that Telemann's overtures (and those by his above-mentioned colleagues) were played in the common line-up. The scores point in that direction, as they include parts for two violins and viola, whereas in the French orchestra the middle voices were divided into three parts. The latter is also the scoring of Fischer's suites. However, he adapted them to the performance conditions at Francophile courts. For instance, the second string part, haute-contre de violon, is composed at a higher pitch than was common in France, which allowed this part to be played at the violin. Muffat's orchestral music is also written in five parts. It should be noted here that this was also common in German music of the 17th century. That kind of music was scored for strings, whereas Muffat specifically refers to the possibility of including winds. He also mentions that his music can be played either with solo instruments or with a larger ensemble. Fischer's suites seem to be intended for strings; in two of the suites he adds parts for trumpet.
The performances by El Gran Teatro del Mundo are rather different from what is indicated above. That is the consequence of the line-up of the ensemble: two recorders, oboe, bassoon, two violins, viola da gamba or bass violin, theorbo and harpsichord. One may immediately notice the lack of instruments in the alto/tenor range. The four works included here are performed in a 'reduced score', as is explained in the liner-notes: "The principle of reduced scores is an emanation of the very nature of this music: French orchestral writing was based on a bass line and a dessus or top voice. This made it possible to omit the intermediate harmonic filler parts and replace them with a rich basso continuo without this music losing its essence". This way the problem of the scoring of the middle parts is solved. However, the next question is: to what extent is the line-up in accordance with the intentions of the composer?
I can't remember having ever heard the five sonatas from Muffat's Armonico Tributo in other performances than with strings. That makes the present performance an interesting alternative. Fischer may seem a different case. Unfortunately, I have no access to the original edition and/or Fischer's preface. The fact that only two suites have additional parts for trumpets is not conclusive, as it does not exclude the use of woodwinds in the other suites. However, the fact that trumpet parts are added to the Suite No. 1 played here, may be an indication that other winds are not required. Telemann may well be the most problematic work for the line-up of this ensemble, as the Overture in E flat is specifically intended for strings. In the concluding pair of passepieds, the second is played as a harpsichord solo, probably inspired by the keyboard transcription by Johann Christoph Bach, Johann Sebastian's elder brother. However, that is no reason to include it here.
Having listened to this disc, I don't find the line-up always convincing, as in the case of Telemann, but also elsewhere. However, my main problem is the choice of tempi, which are often quite extreme. I am all in favour of strongly contrasting tempi, as they emphasize the often theatrical nature of much music of the baroque era. However, it seems to me that they are more appropriate in Italian music - theatrical by nature - than in repertoire with marked French features. Muffat's sonata is probably the most extreme case. The movements with the indication grave are played at an extremely slow tempo. I take the opening movement as an example: it takes 2:58 here, in the recording by Ars Antiqua Austria (Symphonia, 2005) only 1:58. The sarabanda has also the addition grave, and here the music almost comes to a standstill (2:30 vs 1:33). This tempo is so slow that I doubt whether it is possible to dance at. According to New Grove, the indications grave and adagio were used indiscriminately, and there seems to be no reason to play grave movements so slowly.
El Gran Teatro del Mundo is undoubtedly a very good ensemble and the playing is excellent. It is definitely a group to keep an eye on. However, this debut disc has not entirely convinced me, due to the line-up and in particular the choice of tempi. The fact that Fischer's music is not often played and the overture by Telemann is one of his lesser-known may be arguments to purchase this disc, despite the issues mentioned above.