The music of Philipp Heinrich Erlebach was new to me, and that's one of the reasons I had picked it up. I had seen Rodolfo Richter perform as part of the Academy of Ancient Music several years back under Richard Egarr in Bach's Brandeburg Concertos, playing well on the small violin solo in BWV 1046. I sought his name out and he is featured on the cover here. It's not solo music, however. What I found odd was that you had to open the CD to find out who else was performing: In fact, you have to go to page 8 of the booklet! Alison McGillivray is the gambist, who plays in every track. Silas Standage (any relation to Simon?) is on keyboards, Eligio Quinteiro on theorbo, and Peter McCarthy plays double bass on a number of the sonatas. Several of the sonatas require scordatura violin, which of course changes the sound of the instrument. Since you probably are not familiar with Erlebach, I'll skip a biographical sketch, since I have nothing new to contribute; instead, I'll describe his writing as a slightly more modern (read: bland) version of Buxtehude. In fact, this combination of violin, viola da gamba and added basso continuo is right up Buxtehude's alley. This composer was born in Thuringia (in J. S. Bach's neighborhood) in 1657, and most of his output was destroyed in fire. His reknown was for vocal music, although here we have an example of his small consort output. The booklet describes this music as a combination of so-called national styles; the suites typically open with an overture type movement slow-fast-slow, then follow with several dances, courantes, sarabandes, gigues.
My reaction to the music is fair; my reaction to the performance and the recording is less. This music is not profound; if you were to play it dry, or realize all the notes on a keyboard, you'd hear very concordant sounds that made sense. Nothing earth-shattering or clever. It's good music, but good music needs something to reach greatness. Take as a comparison the music of J. S. Bach. Even in dry performances of Bach, there are times that the playing arrests you simply because the notes on the page have a profound nature to them; an inventive, catchy sequence of notes, a rhythm, or the harmonic progression. That's why Bach is held so highly: his music is of such high quality that it survives in blander performances, and can be re-arranged in multiple guises and it just works. Erlebach's music needs some "spice" to make it as appetizing. As much as I have respected Linn, they did a poor job on recording these sonatas. On loudspeakers, the instruments are all kind of muddled together, without the separation between them that would have helped with transparency. I'm not a recording engineer, but I know when a recording isn't capturing the artists at their best. The acoustic is fine, but the clarity among instruments could be improved. It's a far cry from their earlier recording of Bach Trio Sonatas with Thorby and Podger. The performance, especially from Richter, is just not overly engaging. Maybe I was spoiled listening to the thick, fat (dare I say juicy) sound of Hélène Schmitt's violin to then come to the thin, slightly nasal rendition of violin by Richter. Dynamics are very lean, the expressive nuances which would have elevated Erlebach's music simply aren't there. That's not to say these folks aren't good players, they are. The notes are in tune, in the right places, and the phrases are ripe with ornaments. But I can't help but feel this is one of those "English" interpretations, where the "Italian" daring or "German" umph factors could have helped the multinational flavor of Erlebach's music. Take, for instance, the closing of the third sonata, the last track on the disk. It's marked as Ciaconne - Final. So, the Ciaconne is pleasant enough, but then… when it turns slow, the bridge collapses. If these players don't feel it, something's wrong! That's the time to pump up one's creative juices; why does the tempo slow here? For me, it's a time for them to show off with ornamental runs and dramatic gestures. Instead, it's like a limp balloon, after we'd been blowing it up with a steady stream of air for minutes. Erlebach's music isn't likely to take our musical canon by storm. I don't expect every ensemble to record these sonatas because of their artistic merits. Yet, something delicious, if not profound, might have been said with this recording. The knowledge on how to do this was lost. What we're left with is nice background fodder for a cloudy afternoon.