Carl Friedrich Abel, Two Berlin Sonatas for viola da gamba and bass [...]. Edited by Günter and Leonore von Zadow with an introduction by Michael O'Loghlin. Heidelberg: Edition Güntersberg, 2006. Score, EU 14,50.
Two attractive and engaging sonatas for two bass viols by Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) have appeared this year under the title Two Berlin Sonatas. The title is apt, not only because the most authoritative originals are housed in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, but because they are "Berlin School" compositions through and through. Numbers 149-150 in Walter Knape's catalogue, they precede numbers 151-189, the thirty-one exquisite but generally smaller-scale "student" sonatas that make up the Music Book of the Countess of Pembroke (edited in three volumes by George Houle). The numerical proximity could be misleading because the Berlin pieces are technically more challenging, and, on occasion, run up to high d's and e's on the top string. By all indications, these were creations for Abel's 1782 Berlin tour to the court of the viol-playing Prussian crown prince, Friedrich-Wilhelm, and, arguably, they were composed not only to present as gifts to his host, but to show to advantage his own renowned performing skills. Their level of difficulty is not that of Forqueray, but of C.P.E. Bach and Christoph Schaffrath - sonatas that are characterized by all the favored Berlin School idioms: searchingly affective slow movements, unexpected chromaticisms, discrete double stopping, triplet patterns, saturated appoggiaturas, and the lyricism and seamless line of Empfindsamer style.
These pieces, in G major and e minor respectively, are scored for two bass viols without figures, making them true duets in the style of so many other works transcribed for the prince by his resident violist Ludwig Christian Hesse. The parts are written in alto and bass clefs, rather than the conventional "Berlin" treble clef, and the movements are unconventionally disposed slow-fast-slow, or adagio, allegro, and allegro ma non presto, in the case of one, and a flat-out, good luck presto finale in the case of the other - although this configuration was frequently employed in Berlin through the influence of Somis and Tartini.
Abel builds these sonatas on strong melodic bass lines that also feature moments of passagework. This is music from the alleged sunset years of the instrument, but it is neither whimpering nor decadent; rather, it represents an adapation to the viol of a late eighteenth-century aesthetic (as in the case Andreas Lidl), one that perfectly fits the instrument and features it to new advantage.
The edition consists of two complete scores, presented with the customary Edition Güntersberg care for clarity, efficient layout, and accuracy. If you have a yen for the Empfindsamer or searchingly emotional style, you should look into getting these for your personal or institutional library.
Donald Beecher, Ottawa ON
Viola da Gamba Society of America News, December 2006