CF Abel & JC Bach Quartets

“Georgian quartets among Palladian columns”
The London Abel Quartet
Marble Hill House, Twickenham, 4 March 2018

The London Abel Quartet was formed, as the name implies, to explore the music of Carl Friedrich Abel and his contemporaries. Abel was a German composer and viola da gamba player. He was born in  Köthen, where his father worked in JS Bach’s court orchestra. He later became a student at Bach’s Leipzig Thomasschule. After a spell in Dresden, he settled in London around 1759. He was joined in 1762 by Johann Christian Bach, Bach’s youngest surviving son. The pair soon started the famed Bach-Abel concerts in Soho, the first subscription concerts in England. Abel and JC Bach are both buried in buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, just behind St Pancras station.

Their concert, in the Georgian Marble Hill House, was based on pairs of quartets by Abel and JC Bach taken from a 1770s publication and composed for the line-up of the group: flute, violin, viola da gamba, and cello. Both composer’s Quartets were in two movements, the second usually in Minuet style. Although Abel’s two Quartets were similar to JC Bach’s, they showed rather more integrity in terms of consort and structure. The concluding Abel D major Quartet was particularly fine. JC Bach’s Quartet in D major ended with a particularly sophisticated and elegant Minuet. Abel was one of the last composers to write for the viola da gamba, playing it himself in the Bach-Abel concerts in place of the more usual viola for the tenor line of a quartet. Both composers focussed their musical efforts on the three upper instruments, leaving the cello with rather uninspired repeated note bass lines.

The switch from viola da gamba to cello during the 18th century was exemplified by the Capriccio Seconda written in Baroque fantasy style by Joseph Dall’Abace, whose father was one of the first professional cellists. Abel’s love of the viola da gamba was reflected in his Sonata in E minor for gamba and cello, an interesting three-movement piece with elements of the Sturm und Drang style that contrasted the different tone of the two bass instruments. Another continental import to London was Andreas Liedl, the principal gamba player in Haydn’s Esterhazy orchestra. Haydn composed many pieces for Liedl to play on the baryton, an instrument based on a gamba but with sympathetic strings that not only resonated like a viola d’amore, but could also be plucked by the thumb behind the fingerboard. His Trio for violin, gamba and cello was musical extremely competent.

One of the most interesting composers was the extraordinary Ignatius Sancho. He was born on a slave ship and orphaned in New Granada before moving to Greenwich, working for the Duke and Duchess of Montagu. We heard two dances of his – Bushy Park and Lady Mary Montagu’s Reel.

The London Abel Quartet are William Summers, flute, Diane Moore, violin, Ibrahim Aziz, bass viol, and Sam Stadlen, cello. They played this fascinating programme exceptionally well, both individually and in consort. They were playing in the principal first-floor room of Marble Hill House, a 1720s Palladian villa built for the Countess of Suffolk, George II’s mistress, by the Thames in Twickenham. The room, a perfect Palladian cube, housed an audience of around 30 which moderated the acoustic to a pleasant bloom, although the fact that the audience felt compelled to breath caused problems with tuning the instruments.

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