Schabernack: A treasure trove of musical jokes
Les Passions de l’Ame, Meret Lüthi
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. 88985415492. 56’46
Music by Fux, Schmeltzer, Biber, and Walther
Schabernack translates as ‘prank, practical joke, hoax or shenanigans’, and the underlying theme of this CD by the impressive group Les Passions de l’Ame emphasises that aspect of the musical world of the Austrian and Hungarian Empires during the Baroque period. The CD cover promises “Characters from the commedia dell’arte, playful birds, an astonishing virtuosity and a colourful instrumentation – the vivid imagination in late 17th century Austrian-German instrumental music loves to surprise”. But humour is only part of the inspiration for this recording. At the time, these Hapsburg domains were part of the defence of Europe from attacks from the east by the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman influence was spreading into Viennese life and music, with Turkish, or Janissary, music and instruments becoming part of the musical language of the time.
Most of the pieces are found in the large collection of scores in the Moravian castle of Kroměříž. Fux’s opening Les Combattons is a suite of miniatures for two violins and continuo reflecting military and individual skirmishes, with a series of virtuoso movements arranged around by an unusual Perpetuum mobile. Other delights include Schmelzer’s Festschule (Fencing School) ballet and the Sonata Cu Cu, with a lovely moment of repose about two-thirds of the way in. The cuckoo also appears in Walther’s Scherzo d’Augelli con il Cuccu with some virtuous writing for Meret Lüthi’s solo violin. Biber’s Partita IV shares the virtuosity between two violins, with Sabine Stoffer joining Meret Lüthi for some helter-skelter playing.
Musical humour is difficult to bring off, particularly in recordings, but this is extremely well done, avoiding the temptation to overdo things. Meret Lüthi’s violin playing combines expression with virtuosity, as does her companion for several of the pieces, Sabine Sabine Stoffer. But perhaps the most prominent musical contribution to the success of this recording is the imaginative and elaborate range of percussion (including scallop shells) from Peter Kuhnsch, again all within the bounds of taste. The sound of Margit Übellacker’s dulcimer makes a few distinctive appearances.
I have reviewed Meret Lüthi and Les Passions de l’Ame several times, in concert and on CD, and have always been impressed by their spirited and insightful approach to music making.