Focus Baroque

Anno 1698: Viola da Gamba und Cembalo

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Here's an essentially all-German production -- music, performers, label -- of viola da gamba music, not an instrument usually so much associated with Germany. And, as gambist Holger Faust-Peters points out in his booklet notes (in German and English), there isn't really a German gamba style. Instead, gamba music in Germany was international, with Italian, French, and sometimes even English viol elements. This album is a little tour through the gamba-and-keyboard repertory of Germany in the late 17th century, showcasing composers who are mostly unknown outside of serious early music circles. Faust-Peters points out that the music, although quite various in style, was all composed within a single decade, about 1687 to 1697. Those sampling the album may wish to note that it gets better as it goes along. The opening Sonata for viola da gamba and keyboard in A major of Godfrey Finger (or Gottfried Finger) is a pleasant enough example of the early Italian sonata, but the gamba is less suited to this idiom than its soon-to-be-ascendant successor, the cello. Of the two French suites, the Suite XIII in A minor by August Kühnel, published in Kassel in 1698, is the less persuasive. Things pick up as a solo harpsichord toccata by Muffat introduces a series of pieces that, whatever their national style, seem influenced by the inward quality of French viol music. The real find here is the Sonata X in C major by Dutch-German composer Joan Schenk, apparently a renowed gamba virtuoso. The angular melodies, dark mood, and quasi-improvisatory style of this work seem to show the influence of the stylus phantasticus of Muffat and others; whatever the case, it's a brooding, explosive work culminating in a virtuoso double-stopped final fugue. The Sonata V in D minor of Conrad Höffler, despite its title, is another French-style work, again in a somber mood, and the whole is admirably capped off by a sonata of Dietrich Buxtehude. Its form is unusual; there are two moderate movements, each in a highly lyrical vein, and a brisk finale. The program, with plenty of difficult passages, is confidently played by Faust-Peters and harpsichordist Irén Lill, who together call themselves Focus Baroque. The sound, recorded in a church, is a bit too live, but the intimacy and variety of the music are not lost.

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