Official release: May 2021
An unexpected encounter
by Isaline Leloup
This album is the story of an encounter between an instrument forgotten by modern music and a musician in love with history and what it awakens in our daily imagination. Let’s explore the Viennese violone !
This instrument also called Viennese bass, is a peculiar type of double bass which saw its moment of glory around 1760, at the height of Classicism. This new instrument has been fretted and has a particular tuning with thirds (from low to high : F-A-D-F#-A), which allows it to both perform chord and harmonic work, and easily execute virtuoso passages in all registers. Several composers, such as Hoffmeister, Dittersdorf, Sperger, and even Mozart, wrote music for this elephant with the voice of a birdsong. Such pieces range from the utmost virtuoso solos to refined chamber music compositions for various ensembles. Two long years have allowed a project to mature and created a desire to enable others to meet this instrument and the infinite possibilities it offers. This journey gave me the opportunity to find the correctness of interpretation of this music, by appropriating its language, by dancing it, by moving away from it and finding it again to make it resonate in you. This recording takes you to one of these Viennese salons to introduce you to this rarely performed literature. Let’s sit down and enjoy a hot chocolate around a quartet, a concerto arrangement for quintet and an unusual duet giving the solo part to the viola. This Viennese bass music is, for me, filled with lightness, inventiveness and virtuosity, awakening, with each new passage, the imagination. It is sometimes dancing with flexibility and passion, sometimes filled with humor, gluttony and tenderness. It takes us to a multitude of feelings that even bring us closer to opera. Enjoy this refreshing concert full of colours and contrasts !!
Many music lovers would be at loss if they were to explain what a violone is. And, as concerns the “Viennese violone”, it is common fare only for very few specialists. This Da Vinci Classics album is therefore a much-needed opportunity for music lovers to familiarize themselves with the history, features and unique sound of this fascinating instrument.
As could be easily imagined, the violone is a large and low-pitched string instrument, belonging in the family of violins, violas, cellos and double-basses. Indeed, under certain viewpoints it might be considered as the double-bass’ ancestor. This attitude, however, reveals an evolutionary concept of music history, seen as a “progress” from less to more perfected instruments. Though undeniably the history of most instruments is punctuated with technological innovations, these, in many cases, represented ameliorations only from the standpoint of a later musical aesthetics. In other words, a louder grand piano is doubtlessly better suited for playing a Brahms concerto than a forte-piano would be; however, it is debatable whether that same instrument is the best option for performing a Mozart Sonata.
Unavoidably, therefore, the history of musical instruments is intertwined with the history of musical taste; new instruments corresponded to new aesthetics and styles, and older instruments might fall into oblivion if the repertory they represented was in vogue no more. Since the interest in performing the musical repertoires of the past is a relatively recent phenomenon, this attitude de facto consigned many fascinating timbres and aural suggestions to the silence of museums of musical instruments. This is sadly true of the Viennese violone, and the work of musicians who carefully reconstruct its repertoire and playing techniques is therefore particularly praiseworthy. In his Violin School, published the same year when his son Wolfgang Amadeus was born, Leopold Mozart wrote about the violone, describing its physical and musical features. However, in the second edition (1769), his significant additions bear witness to a typically Viennese phenomenon which was emerging at the time. In 1769, in fact, he discussed the five-stringed violone, in which “frets of rather thick string are attached to the neck at all the intervals, in order to prevent the strings from rattling on the fingerboard and so improved the tone. One can also perform difficult passages more easily on such a Bass, and I have heard concertos, trios, solos and so forth played on one of these with great beauty”.
From being just a supporting instrument for the orchestral texture, and one substantially confined to the bass part, the violone was claiming the status of a solo instrument. This was made possible through some innovative solutions, typical for the Viennese version of the instrument and for the playing technique and tuning system associated to it. The tuning system proved to be a major advantage of the Viennese violone, but also – competing, as it did, with rival schools of thought – a problem eventually undermining its success. Whereas most German violones were four-stringed, and France, Spain, Italy and England favoured three-stringed instruments (though with different tuning systems), the five-stringed Viennese violone allowed for more agility and freedom of playing. A higher number of strings, in fact, fostered the possibility of quickly spanning large intervals, and consequently of mastering virtuoso passages more easily. Agility was also fostered by the presence of frets and by the shape of the instrument. Frets allowed for a more precise intonation, but also for a technique similar to the guitar’s barré, i.e. the possibility of creating chords by positioning the finger transversely in correspondence of the fret. Moreover, the Viennese violone’s silhouette, characterized by a very sloping upper part, permitted to the player to easily reach the high-pitched notes (obtained by pressing the strings in the instrument’s lower part).
Thanks to these features, the Viennese violone quickly reached the status of solo and chamber music instrument; a scholar researching on these topics went as far as defining the years 1760-1800 as “the Golden Age of Virtuosity” for the Viennese violone. During these four decades, the violone became the protagonist of more than thirty solo concertos and many chamber music works. Even Haydn and Mozart tried their hand in the creation of works for this instrument, and enriched its already large repertoire. After this “Golden Age”, however, the violone’s success began to wane. This was largely due to the new harmonic perspectives of the Romantic era: here, the Viennese violone’s many strings were a hindrance rather than an advantage, since they prevented smooth transitions among distant keys, such as were in demand in Romantic music. The violone quickly became obsolete, and the double-bass was widely adopted in its stead. Actually, the curtain of forgetfulness which now surrounded the instrument was broken only by a rather sensational discovery, in 1955. At that time, a collection of violone pieces resurfaced in the Landesbibliothek in the German city of Schwerin. The collector was Johann Matthias Sperger, a violone virtuoso performer and composer, represented in this album by one of his works. The collection included works by Borghi, Dittersdorf, Zimmerman, Pichl, Stamitz, Vanhal, Capuzzi, Cimador, Hoffmeister, and by Sperger himself. This discovery prompted the pieces’ publication in the Sixties, and the appearance of a treatise on the concertante (i.e. solo) works in the Viennese Classicism, by Adolf Meier. Thanks to the efforts of Meier and of his fellow scholar Klaus Trumpf, interest in this instrument increased, its playing techniques were rediscovered and its golden age was somewhat rekindled.
The first piece recorded here is the last of the eighteen Concertos written for the violone by Johannes Matthias Sperger, presented here in an original and effectful transcription realized by the soloist, Isaline Leloup. As previously mentioned, Sperger was one of the greatest virtuosi of the violone, but he did not limit himself either to the performance activity, or to the composition of violone works. In fact, he was a very prolific composer, who left numerous works such as concertos for horn, trumpet, bassoon and viola, as well as at least forty-five Symphonies, many works of chamber music and of sacred music. He had born in Feldsberg in 1750, and had received his first musical education in the local Franciscan monastery. After moving to Vienna, in 1767, he studied composition with Albrechtsberger (later to become Beethoven’s teacher) and violone with the great virtuoso Pichelberger, for whom Mozart would compose a concertante aria. He was later employed in the musical chapels of several important noblemen of the time, in Pressburg (now Bratislava), in Kohfidish, and in Ludwigslust, where he was appointed a Court Musician by Prince Friedrich Franz I of Mecklenburg. The concerto recorded here dates to Sperger’s time in Ludwigslust (1807). In between these appointments, Sperger toured extensively (and particularly in Italy), gaining international fame as an astonishing virtuoso. During his life, he was also highly appreciated as a composer; the esteem surrounding him is testified by the fact that Mozart’s Requiem was performed at his burial. In spite of his fifty-three works for solo violone, he would be criticized by later scholars of the double-bass, who found his works exceedingly difficult to perform. This was due to the fact that indeed they are nearly unplayable on the modern double-bass, but are considerably easier and more effective when played on the violone. The performance recorded here allows the listener to appreciate the violone both in its virtuoso features, thanks to the brilliant passageworks and dazzling sequences, and in its lyrical nature, where its expressive and warm timbre is highlighted by the surrounding string instruments in the version recorded here.
If Sperger was highly appreciated at his time, Carl Ditters was such a successful musician that he earned a noble title (“von Dittersdorf”) as well as the highest Papal honours. Also in Ditters’ life, his first musical education was due to a religious context, in this case to the Jesuits. He was a child prodigy as a violin player, who was engaged by numerous courts of the era; however, he also studied composition and counterpoint under the guidance of an Italian musician. As the Chapel Master of the bishop of Großwardein he composed plentifully, including numerous operas and oratorios; later he was appointed by the Bishop of Breslau, in Johannesberg, while, between 1784 and 1787, he resided in Vienna where he played in a string quartet with Haydn and Mozart. This Duet for viola and violone is one of his works which have achieved immortal fame, due to its breadth of vision, to the knowledgeable interplay of the two instruments, to the mellow overall sound they achieve, as well as to its intensity of expression and, at the same time, levity and grace.
Vienna was also the background of Franz Anton Hoffmeister’s life; however, his core activity became that of music publishing, through which he befriended Mozart. His utter ability in the field of music publishing did not diminish his skill as a composer; rather, his first-hand knowledge of the best works of the contemporaneous composers encouraged his own creativity. He wrote more than fifty Symphonies, about sixty concertos as well as chamber music and German comic operas (Singspiel). His four Quartets with Double Bass employ the Violone as the true protagonist of the quartet’s fabric. Indeed, the lowest-pitched instrument takes here the place of the highest, the first violin. In the Quartet recorded here, the first movement’s main themes are always introduced by the violone, as happens with the principal theme of the concluding Rondo. This work illustrates the violone’s capability to enter into a fascinating dialogue with the other members of the string family, and its attitude to both soloism and interplay.
Together, these three works display the full palette of this long-forgotten instrument, and will doubtlessly foster renewed interest in its fascinating potential.
Isaline Leloup: Isaline is an early music bass player specialized in the Viennese bass and is leading the project « A Viennese afternoon », which consists of putting back on stage the solo repertoire of the Viennese double bass in chamber music formation on historical instruments.
Currently, she is busy with a new edition of Dittersdorf’s duet for viola and violone and an arrangement for quintet of the 18th Sperger Concerto, both recorded on this album. After receiving her master’s degree in modern double bass at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels, she studied the classical and romantic repertoire of the historical double bass. She joined a master’s program with the members of the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées in partnership with the Poitiers University. During this period, she discovered the Viennese double bass and decided to devote her career to it. She studied with David Sinclair at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (CH) where she obtained her Master in Spezialisierter Musikalischer Performance in June 2019. She has performed in several historical ensembles such as Ausonia, Les Agrémens, Insula Orchestra, La Chambre Philharmonique, Parnasso in Festa, I Pizzicanti, Cantus Firmus. She is also principal double bass in the BOHO Strings Orchestra. As a chamber musician, she regularly collaborates with the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel. Because the transmission of musical knowledge is important to her, she is also teaching early and modern bass.
Jean-Philippe Gandit: Jean-Philippe studied at the National Conservatory of Music in Paris in the class of Pierre-Henry Xuereb where he won a first prize in viola.
Since 1993, he teaches at the Caen Conservatory and leads the viola section of the Caen Orchestra. He has been a regular participant in the Caen’s Today's Aspect Music Festival since 1994 and rubs shoulders with many contemporary composers such as Bério, Penderecki, Ligeti.
Eager to enrich an ever-expanding repertoire, he also plays baroque music on an ancient instrument and performs with the Orféo55 ensemble. He participates in many Festivals (London, Istanbul, Salzburg Evian, Gstaad, Sablé sur Sarthe).
Martha Moore: Martha was educated at the University of California, Berkeley and the Royal Conservatory in The Hague (NL). She is a member of Les Arts Florissants, and plays regulary with Les Talens Lyriques, Le Concert d’Astrée, Orfeo 55, among others. In 1992, she has recorded Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli's 12 Sonatas for violin and basso continuo for The Syncoop label. She is music director of the baroque chamber music ensemble La Tierce Picarde, which she founded in 2006.
In parallel to her concerts, she participates in several educational projects as violin teacher and coach for the DEMOS project, led by La Cité de la Musique in Paris.
Patrick Oliva: Patrick studied violin at the Geneva High School of Music. His meeting with Michel Kiener led him to specialize at the Centre of Ancient Music with Florence Malgoire, and then at the National Conservatory of Music in Paris. He plays with many ensembles such as Les Arts Florissants, Artaserse, Orfeo 55 or Rosasolis. In 2020, he founded the ensemble La Chandelle to explore the repertoire of baroque sonatas and cantatas. Patrick is also passionate about unwritten music, especially ornamentation and improvisation. He also plays the viola d'amore, having at heart to make known to a wide audience this fascinating instrument.
Ronan Kernoa: After his studies at the CNR in Rouen, Ronan Kernoa obtained a master's degree in historical cello at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. He then studied viola da gamba with Wieland Kuijken and Philippe Pierlot at the same institution and earned a master's degree for this instrument.
He collaborates very regularly with many ensembles such as La Petite Bande, Bach Concentus, Les Muffatti, Les Agremens, Vox Luminis, Il Gardellino. He is often asked to transmit the different aspects of historical bowed instruments by various institutions such as the Hochschule f-r Musik und Theater Leipzig (Germany), Hogeschool Antwerpen (Belgium) or the University of Veracruz (Mexico).
In 2018, he created the historical cello class at the IMEP in Namur.
Franz Anton Hoffmeister (b Rothenburg am Neckar, 12 May 1754; d Vienna, 9 Feb 1812). Austrian music publisher and composer. He went to Vienna in 1768 to study law, but after qualifying, devoted his time to music, especially publishing and composing. As early as 1783, when Viennese music publishing was still in its infancy, he began to publish two series of symphonies in Lyons (printed by Guéra), and some quartets and duets for flute. On 24 January 1784 he announced in the Wiener Zeitung that he planned to publish all his musical works at his own expense and under his own supervision from Rudolf Gräffer’s bookshop (see illustration). But in a large advertisement on 6 August 1785 he no longer mentioned Gräffer, having established a firm in his own name at his home. This advertisement gives a list of works which had already appeared as well as a new publishing programme of three different series, including orchestral and chamber music by Haydn, Mozart, Vanhal, Albrechtsberger, Pleyel, Miča, Ordonez and other foreign composers, besides Hoffmeister’s own works. Although he did not maintain his announced schedules, the business evidently flourished. Hoffmeister had connections with the Speyer publisher Bossler, whose firm acted as a kind of agent for Hoffmeister. Hence a series of announcements and some detailed reviews of works published by the Hoffmeister firm appeared in Bossler’s Musikalische Realzeitung (later Musikalische Korrespondenz), particularly in 1789–91.