Conti – Biber – Schmelzer
on period instruments
Thomas Wimmer, conductor
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 2016
The carnival theme of the amusing album Commedia dell’Austria is stressed in many ways and not only from the musical point of view: it is clear from the title, reminding of the Italian commedia dell’arte, the first form of professional theatre based on the actors’ skill of improvisation, and continues in the cover where four well-known masks stand out against the background of old Vienna. This is a nice and familiar introduction to the rare music performed by the ensemble Accentus Austria, collecting tunes and pieces that were usually performed or are linked with the Carnival tradition of the Viennese court of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Commedia dell’Austria is divided into four parts and to each one is given a title that helps to understand its purpose. The first part is entitled An Aristocratic Scene (Eine Aristokratische Szene) and comprises three sinfonie from three tragicommedie by Francesco Conti, two balli by Nicola Matteis and the Balletto delle Furie by Andreas Anton Schmelzer. This is in short the section that explores the entertainments of the nobility during the Carnival and gives a pretty good idea of the insanity that characterized this period of the year in the unusual mixture between the two canonical genres, the tragic and the comic, to stage a new kind of opera, the tragicommedia. The second part is devoted to Harlequin’s Performance (Der Auftritt Harlekins) and presents another Sinfonia, written by Antonio Draghi, and four short pieces, one by Schmelzer and three from the Linzer Orgeltabulatur, a collection of dances compiled between 1611 and 1613. The third part, Peasant Wedding (Bauernhochzeit), includes Biber’s Sonata a sei, a Balletto by Schmelzer and a Langaus written by an anonymous composer. The last part, entitled The End of the Evening (Das Ende des Abends), presents another work by Schmelzer, the Serenada à 5.
Many of these composers are presently neglected or forgotten, but they were very important, beginning with Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, probably the only one among them that does not need an introduction – and the only one who did not served at the court of Vienna, being employed at the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg. His Sonata à 6 (in full, Sonata die pauern Kirchfartt genandt or “Sonata called the peasants’ procession to church”) is an example of Arcadian diversions from Court ceremonies and was probably but not certanly written for Carnival.
The most prominent Viennese figure is indisputably that of Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (1681/2-1732), arrived in Vienna thanks to the shrewd musical policy of Emperor Joseph I. Conti started his career as theorbist in the courts of Italy, but his fame was such that he was appointed as associate theorbist in Vienna already in 1701, became principal theorbist in 1708 and court composer in 1713. He was also a highly skilled mandolin player and dedicated to this instrument one of the earliest sonatas. It was his duty as a court composer to write the Carnival operas, something that he did between 1714 and 1725. These works are introduced by elaborated sinfonie which consist of numerous separate sections, as it is possible to hear in the three pieces recorded in Commedia dell’Austria, taken from Alba Cornelia (written for Carnival 1714), Don Chisciotte in Sierra Morena (1719) and Creso (1723).
Another remarkable composer was Andreas Anton Schmelzer, son of that Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (famous violinist and composer by his own right) who broke the long succession of Italian imperial Hofkapellmeister when he was appointed to the post in 1679. Andreas Anton was active at the Austrian court from 1671 to 1700 and became official composer of ballet music after his father’s death in 1680. He composed more than seventy ballet suites and, although his musical interests are not as varied as his father’s, they reveal his predilection for new kinds of dance music.
Nicola Matteis (1670-1737) was an English violinist and composer who held a successful career in London before arriving Vienna, where he became court violinist in 1700 and director of instrumental music in 1712. His works, usually written on intercalated folios, are for the most part preserved and show the influence of Italian and French styles. He was entrusted with the composition of ballet music from 1714.
Antonio Draghi was Kappellmeister at the Habsburg court from 1682 to 1700, the year of his death. His presence in Commedia dell’Austria is limited to the Sinfonia from the ballet L’albero del ramo d’oro (premiered in 1681), distinctive enough for the description that accompanied it: “Sinfonia come strepito di Vento di un Bosco” (“Sinfonia like the wind of a forest”).
As for the performance of these composers’ works, Accentus Austria wonderfully conveys the festive climate of the Viennese Carnival, although the representation is more ideal than verisimilar. There is nothing goliardic or exaggerated in the spirit of Commedia dell’Austria and, even in the pieces that more than others can be considered “popular” (as the Pückelhäring and the Langaus) still remains a certain distinction, a touch of class. This is obviously more accentuated in the first section with all its Sinfonie and Balli, but it is a climate to which Biber’s Sonata à 6 or Schmelzer’s Erlicino are not extraneous at all.
Vivacity and joy are part of each composition and are particularly captivating in the marvellous Sinfonia from Alba Cornelia, in the “windy” Sinfonia from L’albero del Ramo d’oro, in the funny Pückelhäring (honestly, an unexpected piece even in a light album like this) and in the frenetic Langaus.
This music makes extremely easy to imagine hordes of happy people pouring into the streets to celebrate or eminent nobles attending to the performance of a tragicommedia, but the main consequence of all these fanciful figurations is that Commedia dell’Austria is an album that invites the listener to explore the Viennese Carnival both from the elitist and the popular sides and to enjoy it both in its most sophisticated and in its most direct ways.