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American Record Guide, October 2006

This includes 11 lovely sonatas and chaconnes by German, Austrian, and Italian composers of the early baroque. The best-known among them is Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c 1623­80). violinist at the imperial court of Vienna. He served as vice-kapellmeister there and then kapellmeister after the death of Giovanni Felice Sances in 1679. Schmelzer's sonatas have undergone a recent revival in the hands of several very fine musicians who specialize in the music of the period. Noteworthy among them are Romanesca (Harmonia Mundi 907143, March/April 1997) and Holloway (Musicaphon 56832, Jan/Feb 2001). The works of Antonio Bertali (1605-69), a predecessor of Schmelzer's, have also been well received by critics through recordings by the Freiburg Baroque (Carus 83303, March/April 2002) and Musica Fiata (CPO 999545, Jan/Feb 1999). Three of his works appear on this release, more than any other single composer.

Samuel Capricornus (1628-65) was one of the most prolific composers of his time, but most of his secular music is no longer extant. He briefly served at the imperial court with Bertali before moving on to the post of kapellmeister to the Wurttemberg court at Stuttgart. Johann Michael Nicolai (1629-85) and Adam Drese (c. 1620-1701) were both Thuringian viol players and composers whose careers were in service to nobility in Weimar, Jena, Brandenburg, and Arnstadt. Drese's residency in Arn­stadt, beginning 1678, brought him into contact with the Bach family. The program ends with a chaconne by Nathanael Schnittelbach (1633-67), who served as civic musician at Lubeck and, despite his short career, became one of the most renowned violin virtuosos of his day.

All of the sonatas and chaconnes are for violin(s) and continuo, which includes various configurations of dulcian, viola da gamba, double harp, harpsichord, and organ. The rhapsodic character of this music strongly reflects these composers' taste for the stile moderno. It is highly ornamental and dramatic. Each work is through-composed, not like the several-movement sonatas one finds in the high baroque (Corelli, for example). They are multi-sectional pieces that shift without pause from one passage to another. Each passage is distinguished by a new tempo, melody, and style of ornamentation.

One will note some interesting repetition on this recording. Bertali's Sonata in G for two violins and bassoon and Schnittelbach's Ciaconna in A for violin both use a descending tetrachord (four-note ground). Simple as they are, I never tire of these seemingly endless sequences of variations. It must result from composers' genius for invention and performers' sensitive ornamentation. The Ciaconna by Schnittelbach brings the recording to a delicate conclusion. The light, wistful performance of this virtuosic piece offers a pleasant contrast to the robust performance of the Bertali sonata. This is the first recording of Schnittelbach's music that I am aware of. What a pleasant surprise that was!

This is a brilliant recording- very strong playing of subtlety and virtuosity. And this is not limited to the violinists Martin Jopp and Jörn Sebastian Kuhlmann. Rainer Johannsen's dulcian playing is intense and quite supple. The continuo playing of the pluckers, viol, and keyboard players furnish a sound foundation for the dazzling display going on above them.

Brian Burtt
MusicWeb International, August 2006

The Ensemble Echo du Danube seem committed and capable performers. They manage to sound larger than their small number - seven musicians, most of whom do not play on all tracks. In fact, despite consisting of a viola da gamba, a theorbo, a dulcian (a what? turns out to be a predecessor to the bassoon), along with violin, double harp, organ and harpsichord, the group manages a full, even modern sound. Modern performance technique on historical instruments, to invert the equation of such groups as Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique?

Naxos have obviously assembled an important historical document here. As Ludwig compiled a sampling of the music of his time and place, so we have the opportunity to travel and hear the sounds of German court music in the 1600s, stuff that led courtiers from a good meal to an evening of toe-tapping and dancing. If this journey sounds interesting to you, then do check out this well-done disc.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, July 2006

The Partiturbuch Ludwig takes its name from its compiler, Jacob Ludwig, a court musician active in Gotha in the mid-years of the seventeenth century. In 1662 he presented his folio of contemporary instrumental compositions to Duke August, a former employer of his from Ludwig’s time in Wolfenbüttel.  There are about one hundred works, mainly though not exclusively cast in sonata form, and all written in Germany though not necessarily by Germans. This disc casts a shrewd eye over the whole corpus of this folio and has selected a representative and really rather impressive selection to reflect its breadth and range.

One of the most obvious highlights is the work of Antonio Bertali, who contributed the most music (eighteen pieces) to the folio. He was the Kapellmeister in Vienna and was a significant figure, composing music for successive Emperors and achieving a position of pan-European eminence. Born in Verona he was originally a violinist and this accounts for his mastery of composition for the instrument.  The Ciaconna in C major is a ceaselessly imaginative work, full of probing musicianship and dextrously laid out.  The Sonata a 3 taps into the nobility of utterance of which he was so adroit an exponent – though it also shows another side to him, with the perky bassoon line adding spice and wit, and the mobility of the writing adding colour and dynamic contrast.

Schmelzer’s Sonata variata is lyrical, elegant and is warmly played here, with charming dynamism of expression and very touching diminuendi.  Capricornus directed church music in Pressburg (now Bratislava) but his gifts were by no means confined to the vocal. He writes a Ciaconna of considerable standing and the performers here do well to explore his supportive theorbo and harpsichord writing  - it’s very rewarding. We finish with yet another Ciaconna, a form at which these Italian and German composers excelled, and that’s the one by Nathanael Schnittelbach. Resident in the Hanseatic city of Lübeck, Schnittelbach arrived via Gdansk in 1655 and carved out a successful career in his newly adopted city. It’s all the more disappointing then to find that this is his only surviving solo violin work especially as it’s so assured and impressive a piece. One has to remember that these composers were writing many years before the Italian virtuoso school took hold; if one thinks of Tartini here or Sammartini one is very much a-historical, though the powerful rhetoric that such as Schnittelbach evokes is certainly a strong indicator of native German solo violin strength in the two generations before the birth of J.S. Bach.

Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, June 2006

The Partiturbuch was a manuscript collection put together by Jacob Ludwig (1623-1698). Ludwig was a court musician, first in Wolfenbüttel and then in Gotha. In 1662, when working in Gotha, he presented this anthology of more or less contemporary instrumental music, written and performed at the various courts of Germany, as a birthday present, to the Duke August who had been his employer in Wolfenbüttel. The Partiturbuch contains around a hundred instrumental works by a variety of composers and a selection of these have been recorded by the Ensemble Echo de Danube on this new CD.

Perhaps the most important figure represented here is Bertali, a native of Verona, who worked for members of the Hapsburg court from 1622 onwards; from 1649 he was Kappelmeister (in succession to Giovanni Valentini) at the imperial court in Vienna. Bertali is represented more extensively than any other composer in the Partiturbuch, a   just reflection of his importance. Himself a virtuoso violinist he did much to ensure the dominance of Italian taste in most of the German-speaking courts in the middle years of the Seventeenth Century. Though it was for his operas, oratorios and church music that he was most famous in his own day, it seems chiefly to have been his instrumental music which has been played and recorded in our own day – as, for example, in a recording of his Sonate Festive by Musica Fiata on CPO and a miscellany of sonatas and chaconnes by the Ricercar Consort on Mirare. (Though his ‘Lamento della Regina d’Inhilterra’ did turn up on Anne Sofie von Otter’s 1998 CD Lamenti). Bertali’s Sonata in D minor is for two violins, viola da gamba, bassoon and harpsichord, while the Sonata in G major is for two violins and bassoon (with harpsichord). Both are enjoyable, witty pieces, well performed here. More remarkable is Ciaccona in C major for violin and harpsichord &n which gets a decent, if not absolutely sparking, performance.

It is good to see the music of Capricornus represented. Born into a family of Hungarian refugees, Capricornicus was a well-educated humanist who studied in Vienna (where he could hardly have escaped the influence of Bertali) before working in modern Bratislava and then becoming Kapellmeister in Stuttgart from 1657. An interesting figure, his Ciaccona is an attractive and inventive piece, which has an almost French stateliness about it.

Johann Heinrich Schmeltzer was the first native Austrian ever to be Kapellmeister at the Hapsburg court. His reputation as both violinist and composer of instrumental music stood very high in his own time and his work is increasingly finding its way on to CD. Here he is represented by an expressive Sonata variata, full of beautiful touches.

The name of Adam Drese was only a name I had seen in books before hearing this CD. He became Kappelmeister at Weimar and later held the same post at Jena, after studying with the important figure of Marco Scacchi in Warsaw. Drese travelled quite widely, at the behest of his first master, Duke Wilhelm IV of Saxe-Weimar. Eventually he became Kappelmeister at Arnstadt, and towards the end of his life became a Pietist of strict beliefs – it is said that he burned most of his secular compositions. Jacob Ludwig’s compilation preserves some work that might, perhaps, have been consigned to the flames. On this evidence Drese was a thoroughly competent composer, well steeped in the dominant Italian style.

Nathanael Schnittelbach is another whose music is very rarely heard today. Michael Fuersts’s booklet notes tell us that he came from Gdansk to Lübeck in 1655 as a municipal musician. He studied with the slightly better known Nicolaus Bleyer and furthered his career by the time-honoured tactic of marrying his teacher’s daughter. He was recognised as one of the finest violinists in Germany. His Ciaccona, which closes the CD, is a lovely piece, musically subtle and emotionally rich.

Johann Michael Nicolai ended his career in Stuttgart, having earlier worked in Thuringia, as a member of the court orchestra of the Duke of Saxe-Lauenburg. From 1655 he was a court musician in Stuttgart. The two compositions by which he is represented here are not especially individual (though the writing for the bassoon in the Sonata in C is engaging), but are assured and pleasant examples of their genre.

This is an entertaining and instructive collection, which whets the appetite for more music by these composers. Recorded in clear, well-balanced sound, the performances are entirely competent and sympathetic without being in any way remarkable. Recommended.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group