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Harmonia Mundi

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3149020208724 (IDV31)
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Reviewer:  Michael Jameson

Habsburg Court music of the seventeenth century was a veritable theatrum mundi with its rich assimilation of music from wide-ranging cultural and regional sources. If some (including Johann Joachim Quantz, who in his 1752 treatise On Playing The Flute lamented that German composers of instrumental music in the seventeenth century ‘sought to excite admiration rather than to please’ felt that musical aesthetics needed to be based on more solidly intellectual foundations, the resourcefulness and originality of Johann Schmelzer’s ceremonial and entertainment music must have astonished and delighted audiences in equal measure.

That it still can soon becomes apparent upon hearing this enterprising new CD devoted to the composer from the Freiburger BarockConsort, which specializes in slightly off-message music of the period. Yet who exact1y was Johann Heinrich Schmelzer? Such scant details as we have of his life and career reveal that he was born in Scheibbs, Lower Austria in the early 1620s, though the precise date is unclear. It seems probable that he joined the Imperial Kapelle in Vienna as a choral scholar in the mid-1630s, and that he trained at some point under Bertali. Records (listing his occupation as ‘Baker’) show that Schmelzer married in 1643 by which point he was employed as a violinist and cornettist at the Cathedral of St Stephen, under the direction of Kapellmeister Ebner. Following Ebner’s death in 1665, Schmelzer assumed his duties as court composer, producing a large amount of entertainment music, ballets and operas. Schmelzer died of the plague in March 1680, having been ennobled by his employer, Leopold I, a year earlier.

This recording brings together pieces selected to re-create something of the experience which might have awaited guests at a typical evening of entertainment held at the Habsburg Court. Interestingly, this programme begins and ends with the beat of a drum, summoning up the listener’s attention at the outset with a Serenata con altre arie (‘Serenade with other tunes’), which as booklet note author Torsten Johann explains, exists in several different versions. The final Lamento section carries a handwritten inscription, ‘there follows the song of lamentation on the unhappy death of Saint Carnival on 22nd February 1667’. In many ways typical of the courtly genre favoured by the Habsburgs, the piece is scored for mixed ensemble including violins, gambas, lute and guitar, and percussion instruments, variously employed to mimic birdsong, church bells and sundry other instrumental effects . There follows a charmingly rustic depiction of Polnische Sackpfeiffen (‘Polish Bagpipes’), whose earthy pungency is offset in quodlibet-style by typical Austrian street songs, or Gassenhauer.

Schmelzer wasn’t above reworking earlier material for other purposes, and the fugal Sonata a 6 is an ingenious contrapuntal foray based on a tune found in his 1662 printed collection Sacro-profanus concentus musicus. In the last two works heard here, it becomes clear that Schmelzer’s advanced and original style exerted a defining influence upon later composers. A series of variations on La bella pastora , in which a pair of violins play out series of increasingly complex and virtuosic excursions around an original theme, already presages the celebrated D minor Sonata from Corelli’s great Op . 5 set (1700) , known as La follia. The use of scordatura tuning in the Sonata a due violini scordati is another progressive innovation for the period, though arguably it is the final work heard here which is the most strongly prophetic. Battaglia, as its name suggests, a kind of seminal Wellington’s Victory, must have influenced Heinrich Ignaz Biber, thought by some to have studied at one time with Schmelzer, in the composition of his own similarly titled but much better known work of 1673.

The performances are accomplished and enjoyable, conveying a vivid sense of the kind of occasion for which this music would have been intended. Recorded sound is wide-ranging and brightly focused, capturing the aural image of the musicians seated in a broad semi-circle onstage to pleasingly natural effect. Booklet presentation and music notes are of high quality, too. If you’re after something a little different, this Harmonia Mundi offering shouldn’t disappoint.       

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