Berliner Gambenbuch

Juliane Laake gamba, Ensemble art d’echo
72:30
Capriccio C 5206

This is an exceptionally interesting recording of a ‘new’ repertoire, still to be made generally available, of the highest quality. The manuscript, currently held in France, possibly originated in north Germany. It appears to have been compiled over several decades, and contains music for solo bass viol, notated entirely in tablature. There are 273 pieces in all, some in variant tunings, some named, (Hotman, Dubuisson and Verdussen) most traceable by concordances (Hume, Ford, Jenkins, Stöeffken and others). The manuscript contains dance movements arranged in suites, several incorporating settings of chorales.

The recording presents six of these suites, some with their chorales. These are very beautifully sung by the tenor in a simple and direct manner, some unaccompanied, some with viol, some with theorbo and organ in various combinations. Thus the programme has a pleasing variety, and makes very enjoyable listening.

I’ve enjoyed Juliane Laake’s superb playing every time I’ve heard it, and her accompanying artists (Kai Roterberg voice, Ophira Zakai theorbo and Klaus Eichhorn organ) are of the same calibre. She plays with absolute technical mastery, completely without mannerism and with compelling musicianship.

The music itself is captivating. The dance suites are French in form and style, and more than once I was reminded of Sainte Colombe. The chorale tunes are followed by sonorous chordal versions for solo viol, sometimes in standard tuning, sometimes in ‘skordatur’. I couldn’t pick up all the tunings, but one sounded like a version of the so-called Bandora set, the suite nominally in G but sounding in (modern pitch) F. Its Gavotte is the tune ‘When the King enjoys his own again’. She plays a 7-string copy of a late 17th-century Tielke which has a very full bass and a beautifully warm top string.

The recording is closely miked in a favourable acoustic, with a lovely ambience particularly around the top string. It nevertheless sounds quite intimate, in keeping with the music, as the chorales and their versions for solo viol would have been for private devotions.

The notes state that she improvises some divisions, and I can’t check what she does with the written source, but whatever she does must be completely appropriate as it was impossible to distinguish what was hers and what was original. I look forward to the time when the facsimile, which Minkoff had planned to publish, eventually becomes available as it is clearly a very important source of 17th-century music for bass viol.

A lot of research has gone into this programme: chorale settings by Praetorius, Walther, Gesius and others have been sought out to go with the versions for viol from the manuscript. The result is a programme of very beautiful music, set into a context, and presented in such a way that the 40 separate tracks make for a very moving whole. Congratulations to all concerned.

Robert Oliver