Monday, 9 May 2016

Exquisite Meister Sonatas, plus Biber, Pachelbel & Biber, performed with panache by Ensemble Diderot

Ensemble Diderot (credit: Alexandre Ah-Kye)

Johannes Pramsohler (director, violin)
Gulrim Choi (cello)
Philippe Grisvard (harpsichord)

Friday 6 May 2016

Ensemble Diderot, lead by Johannes Pramsohler chose to promote the UK launch of their latest CD (although already out in other parts of Europe) at St John’s Smith Square in London.  The CD (on their own label Audax) completes a project begun by Reinhard Goebel with Musica Antiqua Köln, who disbanded in 2007, recording six of Johann Friedrich Meister’s (c1638-1697) twelve Trio Sonatas, ‘Il Giardino del piacere’ as their final enterprise. Now Goebel has asked Pramsohler and the Ensemble Diderot to record the final six.

So in their concert, they performed three of the six they have recorded, but also included music by Pachelbel, Keller and Biber.  They opened with the ninth of the Meister set, which begins with a grand Adagio, performed with poise and elegance, followed by a chromatic Fuga. All the Sonatas have multiple, relatively short movements, based on dance forms, but as Pramsohler explained, Meister was one of the first, if not the first German composers to take the prevailing style of Lully and others and move the music away from the ‘danceable’ forms to what became Ars combinatoria. So the French and Italian styles were developed and combined, creating a more intellectual ‘art music’. So whilst the Gigue in this ninth sonata has a real bounce, played by the Ensemble Diderot with lively spirit, it is no longer obviously a simple dance. The Corrente of the twelfth sonata has real rhythmic spice, with accented offbeats, and the Allemanda of the same piece has striking upbeats, all creating great interest and once again moving the form away from the expected. The Ensemble Diderot vary the textures too, with the harpsichord dropping out of the Sarabanda in the twelfth, leaving the cello to provide a walking bass line. The third sonata contains a beautiful Adagio, with the cello starting each phrase with long held notes over which the violins and harpsichord weave plangent cries – here cellist Guglrim Choi maintains a perfectly even, semplice sound for the others to work off. These are exquisite sonatas, and from the performances here, it was easy to see how much the players had taken this music to heart.

To add some variety to their programme, in the first half we were treated to two pieces by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) – as Pramsohler said, ‘no, not that Canon!’.  We had the Partie No. 2 in C minor, and the Partie No. 5 in C major from ‘Musicalische Ergötzung’ from 1695, the same year as the Meister Sonatas, and both pieces employed piccolo violins. The former was given great energy with rippling harpsichord underpinning from Philippe Grisvard. The players gave the Gavot real lift, and the Treza had wonderful energy. The bittersweet sound of the higher piccolo violins was particularly noticeable in the Saraband, and the players took the repeat with a subtle pianissimo. The Gigue was given delicate articulation, finishing with some incredibly precise spiccato from the violins.

The two Pachelbel pieces were separated by a Chaconne from a Trio Sonata by a composer new to me, one Godfrey Keller (1650-1704). Apparently born Gottfried in Germany, he settled in England as a musical theorist, harpsichordist and composer. Pramsohler described the Chaconne as a palate-cleansing sorbet, and it bears noticeable similarities to ‘that Canon’ from Pachelbel. The players gave this enchanting piece a pleasing lilt, and Choi on the cello in particular was given a chance to shine here.

Before the second Pachelbel Partie, with a return to the piccolo violins, Johannes Pramsohler took the opportunity to explain a bit more about the challenges of the differently tuned instruments, and ‘scordatura’ notation, where fingerings are marked as if one is playing a normally tuned violin. Having struggled slightly to get this across to Sean Rafferty on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune programme the day before, he decided the best way to demonstrate this was by playing the opening of the Pachelbel Partie No. 5 in C major on normal violins, immediately showing the result of the different tuning and the mental agility required of the violinists to perform this semi-transposed music. They then transferred back to the piccolo violins to perform the Partie No. 5. Again, the piccolo violins give a sweet yet slightly nasal sound, particularly noticeable in the opening Sonata movement. Throughout, Pachelbel provides lots of exchanges between the two violins, relished here by Pramsohler and Roldán Bernabé. 

So after two of the Meister Sonatas after the interval, the Ensemble Diderot cleverly finished their programme with a Partita, No. 6 from the ‘Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa’. Whilst the Meister Sonatas are delightful, they perhaps don’t allow for great shows of virtuosity from the players, and of course all create relatively similar sound worlds. The Biber Partita, from only one year later, is like something from another world. The opening Praeludium is reminiscent of a hurdy-gurdy, and very soon, the violins are showing off with some death-defying string crossing, double stopping and spiccato. It felt a little like the Ensemble players had suddenly been let of the leash, and they brought their highly impressive concert to a lively and spirited close.

(Review of CD here)

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