Music for the Berlin Court of Friedrich the Great (CD review)

Music of Graun, Nichelmann, Friedrich II, and Bach. Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902132.

According to the back cover of this Harmonia Mundi release, “The year 2012 marks the tercentenary of the birth of Frederick the Great, whose political and military glory has often relegated his musical talent to the status of a mere hobby. But Frederick II was not only the key personality of Berlin musical life for the whole 18th century--as is shown by the work of the composers presented on this CD, all of whom worked at his court at some point in their careers--but also an excellent flautist who left posterity a number of fine flute sonatas from his own pen.”

The disc contains five works from four composers, including Friedrich II, king of Prussia from 1740-1786. They amply display the creative breadth of the court’s musicians.

Things begin with Johann Gottlieb Graun (1703-1771) and his Overture und Allegro in D minor. Like the other selections on the disc, the music is not particularly memorable, but it is noteworthy for its lively style, and the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, the award-winning chamber orchestra that has devoted itself to the study and performance of ancient music for the past thirty or more years, play the music with an undisguised enthusiasm. These works from Graun provide an exhilarating start to the program.

After that, we get the Concerto per il Cembalo concertante in C minor by Christoph Nichelmann (1717-1762), a typical three-movement work that features some invigorating harpsichord playing in the opening Allegro. If the ensemble tend to rush things a tad, I suppose it’s their prerogative; I’d have liked them to slow it down a trifle. As Nichelmann also wrote songs, one can understand why his central Adagio sounds so rhapsodic; it seems like something from the Romantic period rather than a century earlier. A quick little Presto concludes the piece.

Then we come to one of the many works by Friedrich II (1712-1786) himself, the Flute Sonata in C minor, Nr.190. The king was an accomplished flutist and composed over a hundred sonatas for the instrument. This sonata’s three movements follow the outline slow, moderately fast, and faster. The music is sweet, the solo flute and fortepiano gliding along effortlessly.

Next, we are back to Graun, this time with his Concerto per il Viola da Gamba concertata in A minor. I enjoyed this piece more than Graun’s earlier one on the disc, perhaps because of the lovely sonority of the instrument. The cello would later supplant the viola da gamba in modern orchestras, but it certainly has a plaintively distinctive sound. The work itself is one of the most pleasurable on the program.

The album closes with a piece by the most-famous composer on the disc, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), his Sinfonie Nr. 1 in D major. This was an early example of the then-developing symphony form, and as such it sounds more mature, better elaborated, than the concertos that precede it. The ensemble is no longer merely supporting a solo instrument but creating a variety of contrasting sounds of its own. We can see where it’s going and how the symphony form would come into its own with a few more decades. The Akademie play it with great zest, and even though they again seem to take things at a rather heady pace for my liking, they maintain a refined dignity in the process.

Recorded at Teldec Studios, Berlin, in 2011, the sound is very slightly on the hard, bright, metallic side; yet it displays excellent depth and clarity, too. The imaging is precise, dynamics are more than adequate, and while the frequency range doesn’t appear too extended, it’s sufficient for the music. There is also a good, rich tone from the harpsichord that comes as a welcome addition.


1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed your review, John. Boston-based HIP ensemble Musicians of the Old Post Road put on a birthday concert for Frederick the Great earlier this year, which I covered and thought you might be interested in:


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa