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A Cello Is Not a Viola da Gamba

D. Müller-Schott / A. Hewitt:
Available from Amazon
Beethoven, Cello Sonatas, vol. 1

Available from Amazon
Bach, Gamba Sonatas
The last classical concert of the year from Washington Performing Arts Society featured cellist Daniel Müller-Schott and pianist Angela Hewitt on Monday evening at Sydney Harman Hall. It was indeed one of the most anticipated events on the calendar, combining pieces from this duo's two recent recordings, of Bach's sonatas for viola da gamba and the cello sonatas of Beethoven. Angela Hewitt, as regular readers know, is an Ionarts favorite, for her playing of Bach and Rameau if not for her professorial manner. Müller-Schott's name has come up here in reference to his recording with Anne-Sophie Mutter, but this is the first time we have reviewed the Munich-born cellist live.

For me, Bach's three gamba sonatas are best heard on the instruments for which they were intended, the viola da gamba and harpsichord, as reviewed most memorably from Jérôme Hantaï and Maude Gratton a couple years ago. When the pieces can sound so good the way Bach envisioned, is it really worth trying to adapt them? The viola da gamba has six strings spaced apart by fourths, instead of four spaced apart by fifths, and the possible added low seventh string made sustaining bass notes easier. In any case, cellists regularly play these pieces without much trouble, although to my ears the real thing is preferable, an assessment only confirmed by this performance on modern instruments. Müller-Schott pushed tempo boundaries, drawing out the slow movements and taking the fast ones very fast, in some cases so much so that the sense of ensemble never locked into place, as in the fourth movement of no. 2. As noted of their recording, Hewitt seemed too subservient, holding back the full power of the Steinway (although more present in no. 3) while Müller-Schott's vigorous string scrubbing yielded more rasp than tone.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Angela Hewitt & Daniel Müller-Schott, In and Out of Sync (Washington Post, December 17)

James R. Oestreich, Music in Review (New York Times, December 15)
Müller-Schott's muscle-heavy approach was much better suited to the last two Beethoven cello sonatas, published as op. 102. The last movement of the C major sonata showed a playful attitude in the wry preparation of each return of the main theme. Müller-Schott's best melodic playing was in the slow movement of the D major sonata, taken at a tempo near the grotesquely slow for Adagio but full of longing and exquisite legato line. Hewitt's clarity in sculpting individual lines in thicker contrapuntal textures made the third-movement Allegro fugato, a memorable movement, firmly delineated in its architectural rendering.

The best overall playing of the program was on Beethoven's little set of variations, WoO46, on Mozart's duet for Pamina and Papageno, Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen. Along with its companion piece, cello and piano variations on another tune from The Magic Flute, this is yet another example of how Beethoven's way with the variation form was as accomplished as his handling of sonata-allegro form. The composer's Haydnesque indulgence of Rococo decorative patterns found an ideal executor in the right hand of Angela Hewitt, and Müller-Schott seemed to relax his earnestness and just enjoy the sound of his Matteo Goffriller instrument. The same spirit of a lowered guard came across in the scherzo of the the third cello sonata (op. 64), which turned out to be a near-perfect encore, just substantial enough to satisfy that final corner of musical appetite.

The next concerts in the WPAS classical series will feature pianist Yevgeny Sudbin (January 24, 2 pm) and violinist Nicola Benedetti (February 3, 7:30 pm).


Anonymous said...

It's intersting that you should say that J.S. Bach intended these three sonatas to be played on the viola da gamba and harpsichord. The point which I wish to address here is that this very issue of original intention is not clear. There is no existing score with Bach's signature, only copies that had obviously been written out by his right-hand men. Many musicologists consider these sonatas to be transcriptions of an unknown original composition, with many believing that they were indeed not writte for the viola da gamba. A common alternative offered is that of the violoncello picollo and chamber organ. When you look at the continuo score, it has many sustained notes that are not capable of being played by a harspichord, calling into question whether it was really Bach's intention for it to be used.

All this being said, I'm a viola da gamba player myself, and these sonatas hold a very special place in my heart, but I thought I would address this very common misconception.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thank you for this very interesting comment: I will review some of the other scholarly views on this matter for future thoughts on these pieces.