Adam Falkenhagen: An Evening With Wilhelmine: Opera Nuova (ca.1743)

Galanterie: John Schneiderman lute, Jeffrey Cohan flute, William Skeen cello
104:09 (2 CDs)
Hänssler Classic HC 15048

Adam Falckenhagen (1697-1754) was one of the last important composers of lute music before the instrument went out of fashion. The CD liner notes written by Peter Danner provide interesting biographical information about Falckenhagen, and put his music into its historical context. In about 1726 Falckenhagen studied the lute with Silvius Leopold Weiss in Dresden, and he spent his life playing for various German aristocrats. From 1726 to 1732 he worked at the court in Weimar, first for Duke Wilhelm, and from 1728 for Duke Ernst August, to whom his Opera Nuova  are dedicated. From 1732 to 1754 he worked for Princess Wilhelmine (1709-58) at Bayreuth. Wilhelmine was the sister of Frederick the Great. In spite of their militaristic father, they had had a musical childhood: she played the lute, and Frederick played the flute. Wilhelmine was keen to establish music-making at Bayreuth, and Falckenhagen would have often played for her.

Five of the six concertos of Falckenhagen’s Opera Nuova  are in a major key (E, A, D, G, B flat) – just one in G minor – and are cheerful and easy to listen to. The style is galant, with tuneful melodies decorated on the flute with a plethora of apoggiaturas and trills. The harmony is fairly straightforward, with lots of tonic and dominant, and noticeably it lacks the polyphonic and harmonic complexity of Bach’s music. There are plenty of contrasts of texture characterising each movement, for example in the Largo of Concerto IV, there are long tonic pedals with repeated notes in the bass, very fast arpeggiated chords on the lute, occasional chirpy triplets on the flute, and passages for lute solo. Each Concerto consists of four movements: slow, fast, a short third movement (Tempo di Polonese), and a Minuetto (which has a long set of variations in Concerto IV).

The E major Concerto begins with an Andante, which is pleasant enough, although the repeated chords on the lute are all played the same, giving a plodding effect. The second movement, Allegretto, starts with a sprightly lute solo, and the other instruments join in later. There are some nice solo lute interludes in the Tempo di Polonese, and attractive countermelodies on the lute in the Minuetto alternativamente. There is a problem getting the right balance for the lute, because some of the time it takes a continuo role filling in chords over the bass, when it shouldn’t be too loud, but at other times it plays a countermelody to the flute, creating a texture more akin to a trio sonata, and then it needs to be heard clearly.

John Schneidermann produces some fast, invigorating solo passages in Un poco allegro of the Concerto in A major, with the dexterity and drive of a bluegrass banjo player (which he once was). However, I wonder if his bass strings are synthetic (rather than gut), because they ring on rather too long, and consequently lose some clarity. Jeffrey Cohan’s nimble fingers take their turn on the baroque flute, and with an exciting flurry of triplets towards the end of the movement, his part goes one notch faster than the lute’s.

There is a surprise in the Larghetto of Concerto III, where the soothing, soporific melody is interrupted by an unexpected third inversion dominant chord, leading to a kind of recitativo dialogue between the flute and lute. In this section the long bass notes are sustained sensitively by William Skeen on his gut-strung five-string cello. The lute solo of the following Allegro, though played with suitable panache, has a fast-moving bass line where the bass notes merge into an indistinct blur. Thomas Mace describes this effect as “Two [strings] Snarling together” on page 208 of Musick’s Monument. A practical solution (not Mace’s) would be to put some Blu-tack on the bass strings near the bridge, which eliminates excessive sustain. That aside, the movement races along well, with an energetic input from all three players. They seem to be having fun, and it is all very entertaining stuff. Wilhelmine would have loved it.

Stewart McCoy

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