Johan Schenk, Scherzi musicali für Viola da Gamba und Basso continuo, Suiten X und XI, opus 6 ...

Johan Schenck (1660 - d. after 1710) was born in Amsterdam, where his music enjoyed publication throughout his lifetime. His career, both musical and diplomatic, was centred on an appointment at the court of Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm II in Düsseldorf. Like Schenk, the Elector was also a viol player, but there is nothing in the present suites that suggests that the composer was pandering to the modest talents of a wealthy patron. The music is virtuosic, elegant and sometimes unpredictable.

Schenk's Scherzi musicali were published in 1698, and betray a range of influences; their inventiveness when dealing with variations over a ground bass, and their structure as suites of dance movements, suggest that the composer knew of the latest fashions at the French court. Suite X opens with a lively Capriccio in G major, including a number of chords and semiquaver passages that fall fairly naturally under the fingers. The following Prelude includes slurred scalic runs that must have inspired Schenk's contemporaries to reflect on his 'enchanting manner of bowing with which the great Schenk caressed his viola da gamba' (Johan Snep, 1700, cited in the preface to this edition). I found it very difficult to manage such lengthy runs in a single bow stroke, having spent years converting from a legato cello technique to the separate bows of viol consort repertoire, but the articulation is very effective when it works! After a relatively straightforward Allemande and Courante comes a marathon Chaconne over a four-note descending ground. The gamba part represents fifty-three variations over this simple material, and it is here in particular that the thoughtful continuo realisation provided can help to maintain musical momentum.

Suite XI is even more difficult, opening with bell-like passage work that makes constant use of the top A fret; the range of both suites is wide, frequently extending beyond this pitch. Dramatic shifts between allegro sections and expressive adagios allow little respite for the soloist. The second movement, a fugue, has both first and second subjects in the viol part. A solid technique will allow the different 'voices' to come through in performance. The movement concludes with an 'Adagio tremolo', during which the sustained chords of the viol part could be decorated with appropriately quivering bow strokes (though this is not marked). The rest of the suite comprises a jubilant Allemande, a Courante, a sarabande, a fairly fiendish Gigue and a Minuet.

This is a user-friendly edition, with plenty of built-in flexibility for performers. The suites have been edited by Leonore and Günter von Zadow, with basso continuo realisation by Dankwart von Zadow and an illuminating introduction by Johannes Boer (translated by Howard Weiner). Also provided is the bass line in unrealised form, with the viol part above and edited figures below, so that able continuo players can improvise their own accompaniment (there is also a separate, figured continuo for use by bowed strings or theorbo). Editorial amendments to the musical text are clearly documented in footnotes. This publication has been based on the original print, a collection of some 101 movements spread over fourteen separate suites. Whithin the two suites in this edition, there is ample material to stretch the technique and invention of intermediate to very advanced players, and the music is warmly recommended to all those who like a challenge.

Lisa Colton,
The Viol No 4 (The Viola da Gamba Society of Great Britain), October 2006