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CD Review

August Kühnel

Sei Sonate ò Partite

  • Sonata I in F Major
  • Sonatina VI in echo in C Major
  • Sonatina V (Serenata) in C Minor
  • Sonata III in G minor
  • Sonata II in E minor
  • Sonatina IV in A minor
Consort Les Voix Humaines
Atma Classique ACD22644
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August Kühnel (not to be confused with the slightly later Johann Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor at Leipzig; nor indeed with August's son, Johann Michael Kühnel, composer of lute works) lived from 1645 to somewhere around 1700. He came from a musical family in Mecklenburg and was educated in the nearby Pomeranian town of Güstrow and initially in France. At 16 he was appointed violdigambist at the court of Maurice, Duke of Saxe-Zeitz. For five years from 1681 Kühnel studied in England. Thereafter, he held appointments at Darmstadt, Weimar, Dresden; and from 1695 at the court of Charles I, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel.

The viola da gamba was Kühnel's instrument. During his lifetime the bass viol was increasingly used in mainland Europe even as its popularity was passing its peak in England, where - for instance - the work of Christopher Simpson represented an apogee. Used as an obbligato instrument in Germany (although never to the extent that it was in France), the bass viol replaced the second violin in large and small scale works adding depth and a darker tone; this gravitas was felt to express Protestantism well. Indeed, Kühnel refused a post at the prestigious court at Munich because it would have required that he convert to Catholicism.

Most of Kühnel's compositions remain available only in manuscript. Not so this collection of (unusually) 14 "Sonatas Or Partitas", which were published in 1698 and 1701 (after Kühnel's presumed death: we just don't know… he vanished without trace). The name is also ambiguous – or possibly an error. Certainly intended for courtly drawing and dining rooms and amateur music making, they may have been meant as sonatas or partitas. Or the title may simply be using alternative titles (the "sonata" in Italian was known as a "partita" in France). The selection on this CD from Les Voix Humaines (Susie Napper, bass viol; Margaret Little, bass viol; Mélisande Corriveau, bass viol; Eric Milnes, harpsichord; Sylvain Bergeron, theorbo) distinguishes between the six works which were written for two bass viols (taken variously, it seems, by Napper, Little and Corriveau) and basso continuo (Milnes, harpsichord; Bergeron, theorbo – and one of the former, bass violists, though who is which is not clear from the track listing) on the one hand; and those eight for a single bass viol on the other.

The forms used in these works are several: the usual dance suites, airs, variations and "conventional" sonatas and partitas in their various guises. The fully-scored improvisational preludes which begin most of the pieces hark back to the English use of ex tempore playing, itself derived from the 17th-Century stylus phantasticus. This facet of composition and performance also adds to the works' sense of freedom, originality, variety.

It follows that – the more the players allow themselves to be consciously involved in the music in its own right – the more convincing it will be. They all opt for such controlled "looseness" rather than trying to explain or expose it to us. That, indeed, is how Les Voix Humaines work. And succeed. It's never wayward playing, never undisciplined. But spontaneity and intelligent energy, which are not driven by virtuosity, abound. It's a pity that details of the instruments used are not given in the CD's booklet. The sound produced by the ensemble, though, is rich yet directed.

The other thing which you'll notice is the clear and pleasing distinction between the stringed and plucked voices. The harpsichord of Eric Milnes and Sylvain Bergeron's theorbo are actually miked quite closely. Given Kühnel's attachment to his instrument, the composite effect created by the basso continuo is a striking one. Melody, counterpoint, harmonies across the instruments and rhythmic complexity all work between and around the very different sound palettes which nevertheless meld equally strikingly into the highly enjoyable whole.

Although there are a very few places (the end of the first movement of the C minor sonatina [tr.3], for instance) where extra vibrato reminds us that these pieces have not been over-prepared, the playing is as technically strong as it is full of character. The individuality of each player, although heard, does not obscure Kühnel's intentions. With its rubato, springiness, surprises and yet mellowness of texture – albeit with spikes and relaxations – the music remains a source of enjoyment more than a demonstration.

The only (comparable) collection of Kühnel's music is on Brilliant 93878. Atma's acoustic is close and warm; just what is right for such music. Individual string players can be heard clearly. The accompanying booklet has a short essay in English and French outlining Kühnel's life and some brief context of his works. For all their variety and invention, there is nothing of real genius or anything to marvel at in August Kühnel. Much to enjoy, though. Not only is his music of historical significance as the German school of small-scale string writing matured in his hands (and those of the contemporary Abel, and the Dutch Schenk). But it's played here by musicians well in tune with the repertoire; and obviously familiar enough with the idiom to make it a recommendation. Les Voix Humaines have taken a world that could easily be confined to mere exposition of music as important as this area of Baroque string developed. Their insight and expertise have turned it into something to enjoy and return to for its own sake.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey

Trumpet