Bach: Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Cembalo obbligato, BWV 1027-1029; The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II: Preludes and Fugues in C minor, BWV 871…in D, BWV 874…in B minor, BWV 893. Vittorio Ghielmi, viola da gamba; Lorenzo Ghielmi, fortepiano. Ars Musici. $16.99.
Froberger, Legrenzi, Schmelzer, Valentini, Leopold I, Kaiser Ferdinand III and Anonymous: Works for Viola da Gamba Consort. Klaus Mertens, bass; Hamburger Ratsmusik conducted by Simone Eckert. CPO. $16.99.
It is the viola da gamba that these CDs have in common, but it is unlikely to be the instrument itself that will most attract listeners to either disc, because each has something more unusual to whet the musical appetite. The CD by the Ghielmi brothers surprisingly features the use of a fortepiano rather than a harpsichord as its cembalo continuo, on the basis that Bach was familiar with very early models of the fortepiano (which was invented in 1698) and is even known to have played the instrument – and yes, “cembalo” could at the time refer to a fortepiano as well as to other keyboard instruments. The combined sonority of Vittorio Ghielmi’s 1688 viola da gamba (by Michel Colichon) and Lorenzo Ghielmi’s 1996 exact copy of a 1749 Gottfried Silbermann fortepiano is not only fascinating but also highly effective – in a way that use of a later fortepiano (much less a modern piano) would not be. Whatever the musicological arguments for or against a fortepiano may be in these works, it is fascinating to hear how the instrument changes the way the three viola da gamba sonatas and excerpts from The Well-Tempered Clavier sound. The G minor sonata, BWV 1029, and prelude and fugue in C minor, BWV 871, are highlights of the CD: each has a depth and richness, even a profundity, in this instrumental combination, that goes beyond their usual sound with harpsichord accompaniment. This recording, made in 1997 but only now being released, is a fine one throughout, played very idiomatically and with excellent balance between the instruments. This means keeping the viola da gamba in the foreground, as Bach intended, but allowing the continuo part more weight than usual through the unexpected presence of the fortepiano in this music, and also simply because the nature of fortepiano sound brings it more to the forefront than does the sound of the harpsichord. This is a very unusual and highly pleasing disc, historically accurate in performance and in choice of instruments yet still offering unanticipated delights even in the most familiar pieces that the Ghielmi brothers play. It is unusual to find a CD of Baroque music that offers something genuinely new. This one does.
The anthology of viola da gamba music by Hamburger Ratsmusik – a six-member original-instrument ensemble directed by Simone Eckert, who plays both descant and bass viola da gamba – also offers music lovers something “new” in the form of works that listeners are unlikely to have heard before. But the music itself, of course, is old – older than Bach’s, all of it having been written before Bach was born. The composers represented here are scarcely household names, although Johann Jacob Froberger and Giovanni Legrenzi are perhaps better known than Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and Giovanni Valentini. Also included are two works whose composers are unknown, plus two pieces by royalty of the 17th century: a sonata for four violas da gamba by Leopold I and “Hymnus” for baritone and four violas da gamba by Kaiser Ferdinand III. It is this last work that indicates one of the most unusual elements here, not because of its composer but because of its use of a solo male voice with the ensemble. This is one of three pieces on the CD that call on Klaus Mertens, the others being Schmerzer’s “Del silentio notturno” and Valentini’s “In te domini speravi.” Mertens' vocalizing is exceptional – clear, faithful to the period of the music and quite moving. The instrumental playing is excellent, too, and the overall sound of the ensemble is highly attractive. The different composers’ music is not always terribly distinctive to modern ears, although Valentini’s stands out for its use of the “viola bastarda” (a small bass viol) and for its clever handling of meantone tuning – an old system in which A sharp and B flat are different pitches, making some interesting tonal effects possible. This is more a connoisseur’s disc than one intended for the classical mass market, but in fact it is interesting and unusual enough to be worthy of a wider audience than it is likely to find. One problem is how to find it: buyers usually look for works by specific composers or particular performers, but neither approach will likely bring listeners to this CD, except perhaps in parts of Europe where its title – “Felix Austria” – will seem especially attractive.