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Wagenseil sonatas CC72896
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Georg Christoph WAGENSEIL (1715-1777)
Six Sonatas for Violin, Cello and Violone
Sonata 1 [9:04]
Sonata 2 [8:57]
Sonata 3 [10:37]
Sonata 4 [10:03]
Sonata 5 [9:21]
Sonata 6 [8:38]
Musica Elegantia/Matteo Cichitti
rec. August 2020, SS. Salvatore Church, Salle, Italy
First Recordings

Nowadays, Wagenseil’s name will hardly strike many as being very important – save amongst musicologists who specialize in the music of Vienna in the Eighteenth Century. During those years, however, before it was overshadowed by those of Haydn and Mozart, Wagenseil’s name was much respected amongst the city’s musicians and music-lovers. Although few would nowadays judge any of Wagenseil’s music to be of the very highest order, he was a figure of some historical importance. In support of that statement (and to save space by arguing the case here) I offer three short quotations from modern scholars. First, from a review by the late Richard Maunder (Eighteenth-Century Music, 6(1), 2009, p.136: “If a single composer could be said to have founded the Viennese Classical School, that man is undoubtedly Georg Christoph Wagenseil.” Second, from an essay by David Wyn Jones, ‘First among equals: Haydn and his fellow composers’ in The Cambridge Companion to Haydn, ed. Caryl Clark, 2005, pp.45-57: “Wagenseil’s music so frequently anticipates Haydn’s earliest works that he can claim to have been a major formative figure” (p.46). Third, from Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School, 1740-1780 (1995) by Daniel Heartz (also recently deceased), who describes (p.115) Wagenseil as, along with Glück, “the most seminal figure in the double reign of Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen from 1740 to 1780”.

Born in Vienna in January 1715, Wagenseil was the son of an official in the Imperial court, whose father before him had also held such a post. By his teenage years his musical talents were evident and in 1735 Johann Josef Fux, who had been court composer in Vienna since 1698 and was appointed Hofkapelmeister in 1715, was sufficiently impressed to accept Wagenseil as a pupil. He seems to have become one of Fux’s favourite students. In 1739 Wagenseil became court composer (and remained so until his death); from 1741-1750 he held the position of organist to the Empress Elizabeth Christine, playing in her private chapel. In 1749 he was also given the post of Hofkapelmeister previously held by Fux. At the court and beyond he was acclaimed as a keyboard virtuoso. His influence was felt through his music itself, as well as through his activities as a teacher. His output as a composer included some 15 operas, a great deal of sacred music, many symphonies, a number of concertos – most, but not all, of which were for the ‘clavier’, a variety of chamber pieces and many works (such as sonatas, divertimenti and suites) for the keyboard. Amongst composers known to have studied with him were the Czechs Josef Antonin Ŝtĕpán (1726-1797) and František Dušek (1731-1799), as well as a number of his fellow Austrians, such as Johann Joseph Ildefons Michl (1708-1770), Leopold Hofman (1738-1793), Maximilien Ulbrich (1743-1814) and Johann Baptist Schenk (1753-1836) – with whom Beethoven studied counterpoint in 1793. Though many of these are minor figures, they played a part in the dissemination of Wagenseil’s proto-classical style. Since Wagenseil’s work was extensively published – some of it in Paris, knowledge of his music was not limited to those personally known to him.
More famous figures were also familiar with Wagenseil’s music; his influence on Haydn has been mentioned above. We know too (from a note made by Leopold Mozart in Nannerl’s music book) that the young Mozart learned a scherzo by Wagenseil on January 24 1761 (i.e. three days before his fifth birthday). He also learned some minuets and marches by Wagenseil around the same time. In his entry on Wagenseil in The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, ed. C. Eisen and S. P. Keefe (2006), Simon P. Keefe writes (p.528) that Mozart “performed a Wagenseil concerto for Empress Maria Theresia on his first trip to Vienna in 1762 and played other keyboard works by him at court in London two years later. According to Friedrich Schlichtegroll’s biography of Mozart in his Nekrolog auf den Jahr 1791 (Gotha, 1793) Wagenseil was present at the Vienna performance and may have turned pages for Mozart.”
The name of Wagenseil turns up quite often in the five large volumes of H.C. Robbins Landon’s Haydn: Chronicle and Works, not least when his influence on Haydn’s early symphonies is discussed (e.g. The Early Years:1732-1765, pp. 103-5, 294). Elsewhere in the same volume (p.57) Robbins Landon writes that “Haydn grew up on the solid, contrapuntally efficient music of J. J. Fux, Francesco Tuma, Georg Christoph Wagenseil, the two Reutters, and a score of lesser names”; later (p.303), in discussing Haydn’s development up to 1761, he observes that Haydn “was fast on his way to displacing the music of [Wagenseil and others]. Haydn’s sense of musical climax, his grasp of the infinite potentialities of the sonata form, far exceeded the limited views and flawed techniques of his Austrian precursors in the instrumental field.” To us it seems absolutely clear that Haydn’s work is superior to that of Wagenseil, but one document cited by Robbins Landon (in Haydn in England: 1791-1792, p. 189) shows that such a view wasn’t universal even when Haydn was at something like the peak of his creative life. Appreciation of Haydn’s music was relatively slow to develop in ‘Germany’ (as distinct from Austria). Robbins Landon quotes from a brochure, Portfeuille für Musiklieber, published at Easter 1792 in Leipzig. In it the anonymous author writes “Since the time when Hayde [sic] changed the tone of Viennese music, or set a new pace, it has actually become more characteristic than ever before, but from the dignity which it enjoyed under Wagenseil, it has too much sunk into triviality”. Faced with a judgement such as this perhaps one can only comment with the old Latin maxim De gustibus non est disputandum !

The booklet notes which accompany this CD, by Giorgio Pagannone, a scholar based at the Università degli Studi G. D’Annunzio Chieti Pescara, explain that these six sonatas survive in a manuscript in the Ősterreichische Nationalbibliothek (Austrian National Library) in Vienna. The manuscript’s title page reads Sonate Sei a Violino. Violencello e Contrabasso di Christoffero Wagenseil. But, as Pagannone goes on to explain the single parts refer, not to Contrabasso, but to Basso. The wording implies the use a single instrument in the low bass range rather than any form of basso continuo involving a keyboard. Roberto Sensi in the Preface to his edition of the manuscript (Stuttgart, Musedita, 2009) argues that these sonatas belong “among the first chamber documents for three independent strings, without the support of a keyboard instrument for the realization of the continuo”. This is a small, but interesting example of how Wagenseil’s music, which early in his career had owed much to the procedures of his baroque predecessors had, was by this stage looking forward rather than backwards.

In this recording of Wagenseil’s Six Sonatas, the two upper strings, of the violin (played by Paola Nervi) and the cello (Antonio Colocchia), are joined by the Violone of Matteo Cicchetti, director of the Italian ensemble Musica Elegantia, founded in 2012. Cichetti plays a 16-foot-five-string violone tuned C-E-A-d-g. The recorded sound is top-class, remarkably natural and clear, without the slightest inappropriate resonance, so that one can hear each of the three instruments clearly and appreciate the conversational interplay of voices in Wagenseil’s writing. Indeed, the sound on this disc, made in the church of SS. Salvatore in Salle, is so good that recording engineer Maurizio Pacianiello deserves a special mention.

All six of these sonatas are in three movements, with the expected sequence fast – slow – fast. Four open with a ‘simple’ Allegro – the exceptions being Nos. III (‘Moderato’) and IV (‘Allegro moderato) and half of them close with another such movement. Of those that don’t, the last movement of No. II is marked ‘Menuet’ and the final movement of No. III carries the instruction ‘Tempo di Menuet; the closing movement of No. VIII carries the tempo marking ‘Allegro molto’.

As Pagannone sensibly argues in his notes, these six pieces are best thought of as divertimenti (though Wagenseil himself doesn’t call them this), if we are to approach them with the right expectations. Certainly, their well-made elegance provides a valuable kind of ‘entertainment’, so long as that word is not understood in its largely debased modern sense; the meanings of the Medieval French verb, entrenir, from which our word entertainment comes, included ‘to support (each other)’, ‘to converse with another person’. In these sonatas we have exactly what good eighteenth-century divertimenti give us, a sublimation (in the purer language of music) of civilized conversation – cultured, a refined and sophisticated, even learned, act of sharing. In these sonatas the opening Allegros seem to enact, as it were, the initial exchange of greetings between people who know each other well, followed by the rush of excited conversation; in the Andantes the ‘talk’ becomes more thoughtful and, at moments, involves a degree of sad reflection; in the final movements (especially in the Minuets) there is renewed extroversion, a restoration of sociable animation, which one might characterize as what Ezra Pound called ‘logopoeia’, “a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas and modification of ideas and character”. But, of course, these suggestions of mine are only verbal translations of what Wagenseil does in purely musical terms (and, as translations often do, my words may misrepresent the ‘original’). Most of the allegros are in two sections, a basic sonata form, and Wagenseil is thoroughly competent, if not especially exciting, in the way he handles this form. All of the opening movements are brisk and brief (these six allegros are, on average, less than 40 bars long). All the outer movements are in major keys, most of the central movements in minor keys. So, for example, Sonata No.1 opens and closes with Allegros in F major which frame an Andante in A minor. Wagenseil never allows this pattern to become merely formulaic, through the inventiveness of his ‘local’ detail. For me the greatest delight in these works lies in the varied textures Wagenseil creates from his three string instruments. Naturally the principal role of the violone is to delineate and sustain the rhythm but, as Paganone points out it also “monitors the progress of the dialogue [between violin and cello] and sometimes intervenes in a more active way” providing “short cues that punctuate the main dialogue”. Unisurprisingly (inevitably?), the fastest and most virtuosic passages are largely given to the violin, but the cello often introduces the most important musical ideas, prompting an ‘answer’ from the violin. The textures thus change with some frequency – this music (conversation?) is never boring.

Wagensteil makes skilled use of his materials and some of his melodies (such as the first themes in the Andante of Sonata No.1 and the opening Allegro of Sonata No. III) are decidedly attractive. Like all ‘good’ minor composers he seems to have an honest sense of his own limitations and nowhere does he stray beyond them – or, to put that more negatively, he takes no risks!

There are a number of other desirable CDs of Wagenseil’s music. One I particularly like is Concerts Choisis, played by Echo de Danube and some talented soloists, conducted by Alexander Weiman, released in 2008 (review). But I think this new disc might be the best place to begin an exploration of Wagenseil, given the approachably intimate scale of the music, the fine performances and the top-quality sound.

Glyn Pursglove

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