Notes and Editorial Reviews
Trio Sonatas: No. 8 in G; No. 11 in F; No. 12 in d; No. 14 in g; No. 15 in f; No. 17 in E?; No. 21 in b?.
TOCCATA 6 (65:50)
The composers whose music I review for
generally interest me because I’ve heard and enjoyed their music repeatedly in the past, no matter how esoteric some of them may seem.
However, with Georg von Bertouch (1668–1743), I’ve made an exception to that general rule. I was intrigued by what little I’d heard of him in advance, rather than anything I’ve heard by him. For while it seems that some composers over the years have served in a minor capacity in the armed forces, Bertouch was an illustrious military officer who composed (quite well) in his spare time. He makes the Chevalier de Saint-Georges look like a dilettante—on the battlefield, at any rate.
The liner notes to this release quote the second edition of
The New Grove
on Bertouch’s precipitous choice of vocations: “On a journey to Italy with Johann Nicolaus Bach [J. S. Bach’s second cousin], who was organist in Jena, he encountered the sons of a Danish general whose steward had died; assuming the vacant position, Bertouch traveled back to Denmark with them and embarked on a career in the Danish army.” Given a complete lack of military background, how did Bertouch secure the fairly prominent position of steward to a distinguished general? Did he use his noble family connections? Regardless, with no prior experience he served with distinction in 22 battles in Denmark, the German states, and in France, culminating in an appointment as commandant of Oslo’s vital Akershus Fortress, a position he held for 21 years until his retirement.
Musically, too, Bertouch was no slouch. Though he studied law in Jena for six years, he took extensive lessons in violin and composition with Daniel Eberlin, Telemann’s father-in-law. He was mentioned favorably in Walther’s 1732
and in Mattheson’s 1740
Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte
. Bertouch may have had a dry sense of humor too. Mattheson credited him with sending two accounts that the writer-editor-composer published of a supposedly supernatural musical concert which kept appearing and disappearing near Bergen. Included was a transcription of a
heard at these events. It is the earliest known transcription of Norwegian folk-dance material.
When it came to classical music, Bertouch was, not surprisingly, a conservative. He was in correspondence with J. S. Bach, and his trio sonatas show clear evidence of familiarity with Corelli, but he never moved beyond that into homophonic pastures. At times he seems to prefer looking backward; the lovely Andante that closes his Trio Sonata No. 8, with its series of decorative variations over a chaconne bass, could have been composed in the middle of the 17th century. His skill in counterpoint was reasonably proficient, at least as far as it was displayed in these small works, though the short breath of the movements, which seldom take longer to perform than two minutes, prevents any evaluation of his ability to handle standard classical forms.
What he does display is a refreshing variety of approach. Some movements are primarily Italianate in their emphasis on antiphonal effects (the first Allegro in the Trio Sonata No. 12); others build by taking simple themes along the path of complex harmonic and contrapuntal development (the Largo from the Trio Sonata No. 14); and some are attractive arias, effective in juxtaposition (the short but majestic Adagio from the Trio Sonata No. 11). A few rely upon a quirky tune based on broad intervals, sometimes with a nonfunctional harmonic twist (the Allegro from the Trio Sonata No. 21). The part-writing is usually good, and only occasionally awkward. Bergen Barokk has cleverly chosen to provide contrast in the form of five anonymous selections drawn from the so-called
. These are short, technically less demanding, usually anonymous pieces transcribed for domestic use during part of the 18th century by a Bergen merchant, Jacob Mestmacher.
As for the Bergen Barokk themselves, they offer a combination of sophisticated ensemble work with a slightly rough edge in their individual playing. There are occasional flat notes, broad slurs, and dropped phrase endings from the recorder, and a harsher tone than one usually hears from the strings. Bergen Barokk presumably believes this mirrors typical performance conditions of the period, though as the Adagio from the Sonata No. 11 shows, they are more than capable of playing a smooth line with elegance (and a touch of vibrato) when they care to do so. They emphasize energy and clarity, and are not above taking a personal stand in matters of tempo that contradict markings: for example, the Andante that concludes the Trio Sonata No. 15 receives such a fleet-footed treatment that it’s notably faster than the Vivace at the start of the Trio Sonata No. 11. In general, though, they settle upon a reasonable mix of tempos, as well as a choice of instruments that bring variety to the music.
Good balance and a forward placement of the instruments, with a useful discussion of Bertouch and his music in the liner notes. In short, this is a lively, attractive program, engagingly performed and well recorded. Let’s hope we hear more from Bergen Barokk—and from Bertouch—soon.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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