Please wait...

Hyperion Records

CDA67628 - Abel: Mr Abel's Fine Airs
River Landscape in the Rosental near Leipzig by Karl Gustav Carus (1789-1869)
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Germany / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: October 2006
St Andrew's Church, Toddington, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Hunter
Engineered by Adrian Hunter
Release date: October 2007
DISCID: 62123A18
Total duration: 77 minutes 33 seconds


'This delightful release … Abel was one of the last masters of the viola da gamba, and in these unaccompanied pieces he reveals an intimate art … Heinrich brings to them exactly the right blend of emotional involvement and earnest good taste, and finds pleasing resonance and smoothness in her instrument, such that even nearly 80 minutes of solo gamba never tires the ear. An unexpected and atmospheric gem—I can almost hear the firewood crackling' (Gramophone)

'Heinrich plays them rather as Abel himself might have, with a sort of quiet affection as if she were playing for a small group in a room … I wish it would go on forever. There are a number of recordings of Abel’s more public pieces, symphonies and chamber music, but I think these thoughtful viol solos do indeed capture him at his best' (American Record Guide)

'Until the release of this new recording the fascinating world of Abel's gamba music has been pretty much a closed book … Abel inclined towards simplicity and elegance, and Heinrich is always at pains to bring out the singing quality of the melodic lines … from the outset Heinrich confidently masters the multiple stopping and the wide range of the music … throughout, Heinrich succeeds triumphantly in crafting each piece individually—creating a special atmosphere for each work' (International Record Review)

'Susanne Heinrich proves herself a worthy heir to Abel's virtuosity and considerable gamba skill, and gives fluid accounts of this music' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

'What a cornucopia of expression and nuance she achieves! From the passionate Adagio (WKO209)—where she seems to inhabit Abel's sensibilities to perfection … through the tender rendering of the much loved arpeggiated prelude (WKO205), to the vivacious concluding jig, this is outstanding artistry. Could even Abel have played these works better?' (Early Music)

'Abel’s pieces are reminiscent of J S Bach’s solo cello suites, so if you like them then you’ll like these. They are far more than just dance suites though, both in terms of the frequently florid, technically demanding style (listen to the extraordinary multiple stops in the fugue), and in terms of their emotional range. Sensibility, or the practise of articulating direct and strong emotions, was all the rage in the arts world at the time, and Susanne Heinrich beautifully draws this out of Abel’s writing. Charles Burney wrote at the time that Abel’s viola da gamba seemed to breathe the notes, and I think he’d be similarly complementary of Heinrich’s playing, were he alive and critiquing today' (

'Le naturel et la plénitude du chant demandent une paradoxale précision. Susanne Heinrich y excelle dans ce disque envoûtant et apaisé' (Diapason, France)

'Estas piezas para viola da gamba solo son un estupendo testimonio de musicalidad post Bach, en buena versión de Susanne Heinrich' (La Vanguardia, Spain)

Mr Abel's Fine Airs
Adagio WKO189  [1'57]
Vivace WKO190  [4'46]
Adagio WKO209  [3'36]
[Adagio] WKO187  [4'18]
Fuga WKO196  [2'28]
Adagio  [1'25]
Allegro WKO198  [3'59]
Andante WKO191  [4'20]
Allegro WKO207  [3'52]
Allegro WKO212  [1'32]

Carl Friedrich Abel (1723–1787) was a contemporary of J C Bach, and a fashionable performer and promoter in London in the eighteenth century. By that time the viola da gamba was a rarity, but Abel’s performances sparked a revival of interest among performers and audiences. The works recorded on this disc (six of which have never been previously recorded) can be seen as musical expositions of sensibility, inhabiting the same tragic world as the gamba solos in J S Bach’s Passions. Abel’s contemporary Charles Burney commented on the musician’s ability to ‘breathe’ the notes as he played them, and this extraordinary sensitivity is present too in the beautiful playing of Susanne Heinrich.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Carl Friedrich Abel was born in Köthen in Saxony-Anhalt on 22 December 1723. He was the son and grandson of viola da gamba players: his grandfather Clamor Heinrich Abel had worked in Celle, Hanover and Bremen, and had published gamba music, while his father Christian Ferdinand worked at the Köthen court as a violinist, cellist and gamba player between 1714 and 1737. Christian Ferdinand must have been the person for whom Johann Sebastian Bach (who worked at Köthen between 1717 and 1723) wrote some of his viola da gamba works, including the sixth Brandenburg Concerto. Carl Friedrich presumably initially studied music with his father, and seems to have learned the flute and the harpsichord as well as the violoncello and the gamba. He studied in Leipzig with JS Bach, where he would doubtless have got to know Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian (1735–1782), who was to be his partner in promoting concerts in London. In 1745 Abel moved to Dresden, where he was employed as the court viola da gamba player. Charles Burney wrote (presumably on the basis on first-hand information) that Abel left Dresden in 1758 because of the turmoil produced by the Seven Years’ War, but in fact he seems to have left in 1755 or 1756, and there is some evidence that it was because of a disagreement with the Dresden court Kapellmeister, Johann Adolf Hasse, rather than the war. Whatever the truth, Abel arrived in London in the winter of 1758–9 and worked there for the rest of his life, with the exception of two years spent in Germany between 1782 and 1784. He died in London on 20 June 1787.

Abel worked in London largely as a freelance musician. He attracted attention by the traditional method of promoting benefit concerts, though he began organizing concerts for the impresario and society hostess Theresa Cornelys at Carlisle House in Soho Square as early as 1761, and in 1765 he went into partnership with JC Bach, who had come to London from Milan in 1762. Thomas Gainsborough’s first portrait of Abel was painted around that time, and may have been intended to mark the beginning of the Bach–Abel concerts—the moment that the two composers caught the attention of London society and placed themselves at the head of their profession. In 1768 the concerts moved from Carlisle House to Almack’s Rooms in King Street, St James’s, but returned to Carlisle House for the 1774 season. From 1775 they were held at the newly built Hanover Square Rooms. Abel was one of the greatest viola da gamba players of his time, so it is not surprising that his role in London concerts was to play gamba solos; newspaper advertisements for more than sixty concerts promise that he would play ‘A Solo on the Viola da Gamba’. Although Abel seems to have continued to play the violoncello in the orchestra of the Bach–Abel concerts, and taught the harpsichord and used it to direct concerts (taking turns with Bach), it seems that he only ever played solos on the viola da gamba after his first year in London. He presumably realized that playing an unusual instrument gave him a competitive advantage in London’s cut-throat professional musical world.

By the time Abel was playing the viola da gamba in London concerts his instrument had become a rarity. It had received a new lease of life in the early eighteenth century when it ceased to be a continuo instrument and professional cellists began to use it as an exotic solo instrument. As such it was written for by many composers, including Vivaldi in Italy, François Couperin and Rameau in France, and Bach and Telemann in Germany, though by the second half of the eighteenth century most players were German or Austrian. Abel’s arrival in London seems to have sparked off a revival of the gamba in England. Among his professional colleagues and rivals who played it were the cellists Walter Clagget, Stephen Paxton and Andreas Lidl, while the amateurs who were inspired to take it up by Abel included Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Edward Walpole, Laurence Sterne and Elizabeth, Countess of Pembroke (best known today as the person for whom George III conceived a passion during his madness).

Abel’s surviving viola da gamba music (he also wrote concertos, now lost) divides into two types. We have more than fifty solos or sonatas for gamba and bass. Most of them come from manuscripts once owned by the Countess of Pembroke, and so it has been thought that he wrote them for her, perhaps as teaching material, for they are mostly simple and elegant pieces in the galant style with no great technical difficulties. However, there is evidence that Abel deliberately played simple music in public. Burney wrote that Abel ‘used to say, “I do not chuse to be always struggling with difficulties, and playing with all my might. I make my pieces difficult whenever I please, according to my disposition and that of my audience”’. In particular, he was famous for his manner of playing adagios, which Burney vividly described as his ‘discretion, taste and pathetic manner of expressing, I had almost said of breathing, a few notes’.

The other type of Abel’s gamba music, the subject of this disc, is very different. We have thirty unaccompanied pieces, twenty-four of which have been recorded here, surviving in autograph manuscripts now in the British Library and the New York Public Library. They are generally much more demanding than the solos with bass. There are frequent multiple stops, the music ranges across the whole six-string instrument, from bottom D to a'', and there are a number of passages of elaborate written-out ornamentation in the Italian style. However, what distinguishes them most markedly from the sonatas is that, with the exception of the Sonata in G major, they do not fall into tidy sonata-like sequences of two or three movements. The New York Public Library manuscript consists of a single sequence of twenty-seven pieces, organized only by key: they are all in D major except for five pieces in D minor and two in A major. The implication seems to be that they were intended for informal situations where the player, presumably Abel himself, would select particular pieces as his fancy took him, unfettered by having to conform to an audience’s expectations or to fulfil the promises made in a concert programme.

All this strongly suggests that Abel’s unaccompanied pieces were intended for the private entertainment of his friends. Charles Burney wrote that ‘when he was in spirits and fancy, I have heard him modulate in private on his six-string base with such practical readiness and depth of science, as astonished the late Lord Kelly [Thomas Erskine, Earl of Kelly] and Bach, as much as myself’. The Rev. Henry Bate, proprietor of The Morning Herald, particularly mentioned private performances in his obituary of Abel: ‘Those were the happy judges who heard him play by the fire-side, when he took his flight into fine airs, double stops and arpeggios, and put his twelve o’clock light and shade into every note!’. Most remarkable is an anonymous obituary, published in St James’s Chronicle:

… justly admired as he was at his publick Performances, it was a few only of his intimate Friends in private who were Witnesses of his most wonderful musical Powers, to come at which, a Bottle or two of good Burgundy before him, and his Viol di Gambo within his Reach, were necessary. In that Situation his Friends would introduce the Subject of the human Passions, and Abel, not very capable of expressing in English his own sentiments, would catch up his Viol Di Gambo, and tell the Story of Lefevre thereon, till he brought Tears into the Eyes of his Hearers, and not lay it down, till he had made his Friend Gainsborough dance a Hornpipe on the Bottom of a Pewter Quart Pot.

What is being referred to here is the fashionable topic of how the various emotions might be portrayed in artistic works, discussed at the time in books such as William Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty (1753), Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), and Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses (1769–90). It is significant that Abel reportedly chose ‘the Story of Lefevre’ as the theme for an improvisation, for it was the subject of the famous episode in Book VI of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (written in 1762), featuring the touching deathbed scene of Lieutenant Le Fever. Sterne was extremely musical, played the gamba, and is known to have attended the Bach–Abel concerts. Both were regarded in their own fields as exponents of sensibility—the cult of sincere and direct emotion that was at its height in the 1760s. As the author of another of Abel’s obituaries put it, ‘The death of Abel occasions a great loss to the musical world. Sensibility is the prevailing and beautiful characteristic of his compositions.—He was the Sterne of Music.—The one wrote, and the other composed to the soul.’

It is easy to see how some of Abel’s adagios, such as WKO187, WKO189 and WKO209, could be thought of as musical expositions of sensibility. WKO209, in particular, with its extravagant musical gestures and harmonies, inhabits the same tragic world as the gamba solos in J S Bach’s Passions or pieces in the Empfindsamkeit style by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel—the musical equivalent of sensibility in literature. Programmatic elements can occasionally be heard in the other pieces, such as the bagpipe or hurdy-gurdy drones in the minuets WKO154 and WKO188, evoking the Meissen china world of aristocrats disguised as shepherds, or the jig-like WKO212, evoking a peasant dance. In general, the minuets remind us of courtly society and the role formal dance played in it, as the minuets in Classical symphonies do. Sometimes, as in WKO191 and WKO199, there is a piquant tension between the melancholy and private spirit of the music and the rhythms and phraseology of the formal, public dance.

Another set of references is evoked by the splendid fugue WKO196. Although the idea of writing contrapuntal music for a single stringed instrument makes us think of J S Bach, the immediate reference is to the fugue in Corelli’s D major concerto Op 6 No 1. Corelli’s concertos were very popular in eighteenth-century England, though they were mostly played by those who favoured the ‘ancient’ Baroque style and were opposed to the modern galant style cultivated by J C Bach and Abel. One wonders whether such pieces that evoke the technique and style of Bach’s unaccompanied violin and violoncello music were a kind of private joke, intended to tell the members of Abel’s circle that his musical interests and sympathies were far wider than the public might have suspected. Certainly, these unaccompanied pieces, among the finest music written for the gamba in the second half of the eighteenth century, will surprise those who only know his slight and charming galant sonatas.

Peter Holman © 2007

   English   Français   Deutsch