Schmelzer: Sonatas

Schmelzer: Sonatas
Le Concert Brisé, William Dongois
Accent ACC24324. 69’21

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c1623-1680) was born in central Austria, moving to Vienna sometime in the 1630s where he spent the rest of his life working in the court of the Hapsburg emperors. He lived at a time when the cornett was beginning to lose position to the violin as the principal treble instrument. This is evidenced by Schmelzer’s own career, which started as a cornettist in the Vienna Stephansdom before making his name as a violin virtuoso, becoming court violinist to Ferdinand II/III and Leopold I. This CD redresses the balance towards the earlier instruments a little, by including arrangements for the cornett of pieces intended for the violin or other string instruments ‘played on the shoulder’. It also includes samples of the extraordinarily colourful instrumentations used by Schmelzer (and his Germanic colleagues), for example in the Sonata La carolietta written for violin, cornett, trombone and fagotto, and, in the Sonata à 5 adding a trumpet to that line-up. 

Each piece has its own distinct character, enhanced by Schmelzer’s imaginative use of instruments. The extended final piece (Pastorella à 2) is particularly attractive, not least by being based on the simplest of musical structures, although a noisy organ stop change at about 4’00 should have been edited out (a similar thing happens in track 3 around 5’30). The music is frequently virtuosic, to an extent that it sometimes appears to be teetering on the edge of its seat, for example in track 1 (an arrangement for straight cornett and organ of a Sonata from the 1664 Kroměříž manuscript) where the cornett seems to only just keep up with the organ in the fastest passages. Very occasionally intonation is a little wayward, for example in the highest register of the cornett in track 9. The aural focus of the various instruments is occasionally changed, with the cornett suddenly appears to be acoustically well behind the other instruments on a couple of tracks.

Those minor quibbles aside, the overall recording is most effective, revealing a fascinating sound world. It features extremely fine playing, much of it containing real technical difficulties, from the six players – Le Concert Brisé’s director, cornettist William Dongois, Alice Julien-Laferriere, violin. Jean-Francois Madeuf, natural trumpet. Stefan Legee, sackbut. Moni Fischalek, dulcian, and Hadrien Jourdan, organ. Only two pieces are for one solo instrument and organ: the opening Sonata seconda (where the organ makes a significant contribution in solo passages and continuo accompaniment); and the Sonata quinta for violin and organ where Alice Julien-Laferrière’s eloquently expressive violin playing demonstrates just why the violin took over from the cornett as the supreme solo instrument.

The organ is the same one that Le Concert Brisé used for their Scheidemann CD, in Église Jésus-Ouvrier, Talange – a modern instrument (2006) in Italian Renaissance style. It suits this repertoire particularly well, the simple palette of colours of the Italian-style organ being similar to those found in Catholic Southern Germany and Austria. Hadrien Jourdan’s playing is particularly sensitive in terms of touch and articulation.


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