Asked about the most famous 18th century viol virtuosi and most of us will think of French names…maybe Sainte-Colombe, Marin Marais, Antoine Forqueray…
Johannes Schenck-a Dutch composer of German descent—might not immediately come to mind, although during his lifetime he was considered one of the greats when it came to the viola da gamba. He published 10 collections of music, thanks in part to support from private donors, patrons, and business men. Case in point, the 15 sonatas of Schenck’s Tyd en konst-oeffeningen of 1688, were dedicated, not to a king or ruler, but to two important sponsors, mayor Nocholas Witsen, and Jakob Boreel, a municipal official.
Schenck did eventually go to work at court, however. In 1696, he headed to Düsseldorf, to the court of Prince Elector Johann Wilhelm II (himself an avid, if amateur viol player). Wilhelm boasted a rich musical life at his court importing a lot of musicians and composers with whom Schenck would have interacted. Handel, for instance visited Wilhelm on at least a couple occasions the early 18th c. Wilhelm’s court eventually moved to Mannheim, and it’s around that time that we lose track of Schenck’s biography. By 1717, there are no more references to Schenck in the lists of court musicians, and the rest just fades into history.
But luckily for us we do have much of Schenck’s music from his 10 publications—the lion’s share of it composed for the viol.
Viola da gambist, Lixsania Fernandez and the Recondita Armonia Ensemble play six of the fifteen sonatas from Shenck's Tyd en konst-oeffeningen on a 2014 Brilliant Classics release. Fernandez brings both a tender lyricism and a muscular virtuosity to the music. These are technically demanding pieces—Schenck must have done a lot for expanding the technique of the viol, or at least held his own with the virtuosi in France!
After a CD of Schenck and viol music, it is only natural to move next to Martin Berteau, a composer who himself had come up in the French viol tradition in the footsteps of Marias, and Forqueray. And yet, Berteau, born in France around the same time that Schenck’s biography trails off in Germany, gave up the viol devoted himself fully to the new and fashionable cello….this, reportedly, after hearing a concert by the famed Italian cellist Francischello.
Martin Berteau has long been credited with extended techniques like thumb position for playing in very high registers, double-stopping and harmonics. But despite his reputation as the father of the modern cello as we know it, we don’t actually have a lot of examples of his compositions—and even in those, questions of authorship and authenticity have been rife. For instance, Berteau’s G major sonata was for a very long time, attributed instead to Sammartini.
Click here for more of the story about that.
Christophe Coin performs on a 2014 release of sonatas and airs from Berteau’s Sonate de camera, Op 1 published in Paris in 1748.
One other important aspect of Martin Berteau’s biography is his prolific role as a teacher through which his influence in the cello world can still be traced. It seems only appropriate then that cellist Christophe Coin is on this recording, assisted in the accompaniment by his own former students, Petr Skalka and Felix Knecht.
A recording from American cellist and viol player, Shirley Hunt, champions both instruments side by side on a single recording of works by J.S. Bach. Released on her own Letterbox label, this is the first of a three-part series featuring Bach’s complete cello suites and viola da gamba sonatas.
The Bach suites for solo cello have become standard rep for just about every cellist, and Hunt is adding her name to the list. One of the highlights though of this recording is the middle movement of the viola da gamba sonata, especially beautiful in Hunt’s control of her persistent and sustained slow bows.