Rachel Harris

Johann Christian Hertel: 6 Sonaten für Violine

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Johann Christian Hertel was a composer and string player who migrated from Bavaria to central Germany and spent much of career in Eisenach, Bach's birthplace. He was better known as a performer than as a composer; his music, now almost completely unknown and much of it lost, was never very widely diffused, and the present set of sonatas for violin and continuo was his only publication. Yet it suggests the depth of the region's musical culture in the early eighteenth century, a depth that had something to do with prosperity, certainly, but also with the convergence of multiple traditions: instrumental virtuosity, church patronage, the town musician culture that nurtured Bach's talent. This is an intriguing set of violin sonatas in the Italian sonata da chiesa (church sonata) format, with four movements in some version of a slow-fast-slow-fast configuration. Hertel varies this enjoyably, substituting dance movements for the finale and offering slow movements of various types. The violin writing is dense rather than fancy in the Corelli mode; despite an overall light mood it works in a good deal of counterpoint, which may involve the violin itself (as in the unusual fugue in the Violin Sonata No. 6 in A major, track 22) or a distinctive kind of interplay with the continuo. The continuo group here, with cello, harpsichord, and either archlute or theorbo, is unusually resonant, with an intriguing variety of sounds. Several of the slow movements are set off with pizzicato textures. A strong group of young British and German musicians, headed by the emerging Baroque violinist and ensemble leader Rachel Harris, delivers lively, sensitive performances. Spacious sound, recorded in a church, overdoes the resonance of the large group and robs the music of the pleasant intimacy it naturally contains, but this is an intriguing find for Baroque violin fans, not derivative of the style of any other composer.

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