Tuesday 24 January 2023

Style and elegance: with Bach-Abel Society, Les Ombres take us back to the elegant evenings of the Bach-Abel concerts in London

Bach-Abel Society - Bach, Abel, Schroter, Haydn; Les Ombres; Mirare
Bach-Abel Society - Bach, Abel, Schröter, Haydn; Les Ombres; Mirare
Reviewed 17 January 2023 (★★★★★)

A delightful and imaginative disc which takes us into the salons of London at the height of the popularity of the Bach-Abel concerts with music full of style and elegance

Carl Friedrich Abel arrived in London in 1759 (aged 36), and Johann Christian Bach would arrive in 1762 (aged 27). The two knew each other, their fathers were friends and colleagues (Bach senior had worked with Abel senior at the court in Köthen). By 1765 Bach and Abel had set up a concert series in London, initially as part of society queen Teresa Cornelys' fashionable assemblies at Carlisle House in Soho Square, then in Almack's Room in King Street and finally in the purpose-built Hanover Square Rooms from 1776. Later years brought financial troubles and the concerts ceased with Bach's death in 1782.

These were not public concerts, the series was open only to the great and the good of society. Their attraction was exclusivity with a subscription list itself controlled by a group of aristocratic female patronesses who vetted potential concert goers. Leading European singers and instrumentalists performed, there were visual delights including paintings by Gainsborough. However, the exclusivity also meant that advertisements for the events fail to give us an idea of either performers or repertoire.

However the ensemble Les Ombres - Margaux Blanchard, viola de gamba & co-musical director, Sylvain Sartre, flute & co-musical director, Fiona McGown, mezzo-soprano, Théotime Langlois de Swarte, violin, Justin Taylor, forte piano, Hanna Salzenstein, cello - have brought together a programme of likely pieces for their disc Bach-Abel Society on Mirare. So here we have quartets by Bach and Abel, viola da gamba solos by Abel, Scots songs arranged by Haydn, and pieces by Johann Samuel Schröter.

Some of the music was undoubtedly written for the concerts whilst other pieces were probably written for the domestic music market, but the overall programme with its diverse mix of instruments and genres, gives us a fair idea of the sort of chamber music and song that may have been heard alongside larger scale pieces at the Bach-Abel concerts.

We begin with one of Bach's Quartets Op.8, intended for oboe, violin, viola and bass, though the oboe part could be played on flute (as here) or violin and the viola part is thought to have been written for viola da gamba, specifically for Abel. In two movements, this is music of a charming elegance, the first movement graceful and the second a perky delight, full of character. Next comes one of Abel's pieces for bass viol, here a prelude that for all the busy arpeggiation succeeds in being rather thoughtful, capitalising on the instrument's mellow sound.

Mary's Dream is one of Haydn's arrangements of Scots songs, in fact written after the Bach-Abel concerts finished but they give us a glimpse of the style of song that would have been common. Haydn's arrangements, made for Scottish publishers who would simply send him the melody lines, are discreet but interesting. However I could have wished that Fiona McGown's diction had been crisper.

Next comes one of Abel's Sonatas for viola da gamba and continuo, from a collection discovered in Poland in 2014; bought the Prussian ambassador in London from 1766-1782 and brought back with him when he returned to Militsch, Silesia. The ambassador was a keen gamba player, probably one of Abel's pupils. Whereas the solo gamba music on the disc displays Abel himself in virtuosic mode, looking backwards, the sonata is perhaps simpler (aimed at the domestic market) and full of galant charm. A lively first movement with elegantly plangent sound is followed by the lovely melancholy of the second movement and busy elaboration in the third.

A further Haydn song is followed by a harpsichord quartet by Schröter, a composer from a German musical family (his father was oboist to the Elector of Saxony/King of Poland) and Schröter arrived in London at the age of 20, becoming an established favourite with audiences. The quartet is in three movements, the first brisk with more than a pre-echo of Mozart, the second elegant with lovely, delicate textures and the third full of brisk vigour. Schröter's widow Rebecca was a fine pianist, she and Haydn became intimate during his London visits and he wrote a set of his finest piano trios for her.

Next comes a further Abel prelude for solo bass viol, arpeggiated and virtuoso yet finely thoughtful too. Schröter's violin sonata is characterised by a lovely flowing elegance. Abel's Quartet in G major is something of a conundrum, as it is a pastiche of movements from his other works. Still, we have a lively yet wonderfully mellow first movement, a gentle and touching Adagio then a perky, almost toe-tapping Allegretto. The final Bach piece is a lively and rather bouncy minuet from on of his violin sonatas and the disc ends with a further Haydn song.

Les Ombres
Les Ombres

Les Ombres was founded at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (in Basel), by Margaux Blanchard and Sylvain Sartre and there is something wonderfully European about an ensemble founded in Switzerland, by two French artists, performing music by three German composers written for London society.

There is a lovely sense of conviviality to these recordings, friends making music together, and also a discreet virtuosity in some of the music. Style and elegance is to the fore, and we never feel that the viola da gamba is an 'ancient' curiosity, it is fully part of the 18th century style. But what the disc really does is give us a feel for the stylish elegance and imagination of the music played at those fashionable soirees!

JOHANN CHRISTIAN BACH - Quartet No. 2 in D major (W.B 52) from 6 Quartets, Op. 8
CARL FRIEDRICH ABEL - [Prelude] in D major (WKO 194) from 27 Pieces for Bass Viol
FRANZ JOSEF HAYDN - Mary's Dream from A selection of Original Scots Songs in Three Parts, the Harmony by Haydn, Volume 2
CARL FRIEDRICH ABEL - Sonata in C minor (A2:60A) from Zehn Sonaten für Viola da Gamba und Basso continuo (Maltzan Collection)
FRANZ JOSEF HAYDN - John Anderson, My Jo from A selection of Original Scots Songs in Three Parts, the Harmony by Haydn, Volume 2
JOHANN SAMUEL SCHRÖTER - Quintet in C major from Two Harpsichord Quintets, Op. 1 (IJS 2)
CARL FRIEDRICH ABEL - [Prelude] in D minor (WK 205) from 27 Pieces for Bass Viol
JOHANN SAMUEL SCHRÖTER - Sonate VI from Six sonates d'airs choisis, Op.7
CARL FRIEDRICH ABEL - Quartet in G major (WKO 227)
JOHANN CHRISTIAN BACH - Tempo di Minuetto, Sonata No. 3 in C major (W.B 12) from Six violin sonatas, Op.16
FRANZ JOSEF HAYDN - I Love My Love In Secret from A selection of Original Scots Songs in Three Parts, the Harmony by Haydn, Volume 2
 Les Ombres - Margaux Blanchard, viola de gamba, Sylvain Sartre, flute, Fiona McGown, mezzo-soprano, Théotime Langlois de Swarte, violin, Justin Taylor, forte piano, Hanna Salzenstein, cello
Recorded February 2021, Théâtre Auditorium de Poitiers
MIRARE MIR584 1CD [69:37]

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