Romanus Weichlein and Friends
WEICHLEIN: Opus 1 (1695), Johann Kuhnau, Georg Böhm, Johann Pachelbel, Johann Kaspar Kerll, Georg Muffat. Ensemble Masques, Olivier Fortin. Alpha Classics 212 (2015).
Ensemble Masques, led by keyboardist Olivier Fortin, presents string music by Biber protégé Andreas Franz Weichlein, first published in 1695. To further fill out the presented music, they have interleaved pieces for two harpsichords, with Fortin being joined by Skip Sempé, that epitomize the use of a repeated bass. This technique of inventing variations on top of a repeating bass is also a trademark of Weichlein’s music. All the pieces are roughly contemporaneous.
Those already familiar with the string ensemble pieces by Biber, Muffat, or Schmelzer will find Weichlein “speaking” the same rhetorical language through his music, if not in figures, then at least in style. The phantasticus style employed by Weichlein, with alternating sections varied by tempo or meter, is well read by Ensemble Masques. Fortin uses a harpsichord in some pieces, a chamber organ in others. The string section includes violin (Sophie Gent, Tuomo Suni), viola (Kathleen Kajioka), bass viol (Mélisande Corriveau), and violone (Benoît Vanden Bemdem).
Weichlein’s writing, to my ears, is as interesting, with themes of good invention, as the pieces left to us by Schmelzer, and perhaps some of those by Biber. Biber, of course, also left us music of a far richer virtuosity as well with his solo sonatas for violin. But these works could have easily been at home at court or used as banquet music, and very likely served a similar function as the pieces composed by other composers of the time, acclimating a style in other German-speaking countries.
The harpsichord pieces, to me, seem an odd fit for the pairing with Weichlein. Sempé and Fortin have made a number of recordings already featuring two harpsichords and play well together, sometimes to my ears as if they were thinking in tandem. Stylistically, several of the pieces are very different from Weichlein’s ensemble pieces (the exceptions, for me, are the pieces by Pachelbel and Muffat, which feel “at home”). Too, the sound quality of the recording changes when the harpsichord pieces appear, with the clarity of the instruments increasing, and the volume appearing disproportionally loud in comparison to the ensemble pieces.
My reservations aside about the overall programming concept, collectively the keyboard pieces are well worth our audition and played in lock-step harmony. The ensemble pieces by Weichlein too are well worth our hearing, exposing a composer that likely for too long has not had an opportunity to engage the modern listener. Ensemble Masques was up to the challenge of bringing us this obscure composer.
In the end, I would have preferred both more Weichlein and more keyboard duos each as their own program.