Wednesday, March 21, 2012

New Album Review: Frederick The Great: Music for the Berlin Court

This new album by the Akademie Für Alte Musik celebrates the tercentenary of the birth ofKing Frederick the Great (1713 - 1786) with some choice repertoire. Since Frederick’s court was an epicenter of high-end music making there’s lots of interesting composers to chose from and the ensemble has made some daring choices.  Rather than perform generic Quantz and Benda flute pieces, the ensemble has wisely programmed music by Johann Gottlieb Graun, Christoph Nichelmann and Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach and a flute sonata by the King himself.

Johann Gottlieb Graun, the older brother of the better-known opera composer Carl Heinrich Graun, has two works on the recording. The elder Graun’s Ouvertüre and Allegro is a pleasing sinfonia-like piece with an extended French overture in dotted rhythms, bustling fugue and second movement Allegro that’s memorable for its solo oboe writing. The King’s court was known for its gamba players so Graun’s Concerto for Viola da Gamba isn’t such an anomaly (apparently Graun wrote five gamba concertos). Gambist Jan Freiheit plays the solo part with fleet fingers in the churning outer movements and sensitivity in the expressive Adagio. Another under the radar composer, Bach student Christoph Nichelmann, is represented by a Concerto for Harpsichord (one of 20 that he wrote). The keyboard part, played with brio on the fortepiano by Raphael Alpermann, is virtuosic and certainly places the concerto at the crossroads of the Baroque and Classical eras, particularly in the lovely song-like Adagio.
Standing on more familiar ground is Frederick the Great’s Flute Sonata, a work that rises a bit above the average because of the first movement’s alternating recitative and arioso passages. Christoph Huntgeburth’s warm and woody tone is nicely supported by Alpermann. The biggest name at Frederick’s court was that most ungrateful of Bach’s sons (read James Gaines’ An Evening in the Palace of Reason for more details) Carl Philipp Emmanuel. C.P.E.’s Sinfonie No. 1 is in the orthodox three-movement form but it’s the impressive writing for winds (flutes, oboes, bassoon) and brass (horns)  that make the piece a stand out.
Akademie Für Alte Musik perform without a conductor and are in typically strong form. The precision of the playing in the driving opening Allegro of the C.P.E. Sinfonie and the crisply dotted rhythms of the Graun Ouvertüre speak highly of the skills of the concertmasters Stephan Mai and Georg Kallweit. All in all, this is a terrific recording that sheds new light on the court of the most musical of royals.

Click to sample and buy the album 

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