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Late Baroque master Johann Fasch’s finest chamber music is presented by Ensemble Marsyas in vigorous performances which fully demonstrate why the man and his music were so appreciated in his own lifetime. The four-movement Quartet in B flat major for recorder, oboe, violin and continuo is among one of Fasch’s most popular works; full of catchy tunes and contrapuntal ingenuity in equal measure and thrillingly virtuosic. The Concerto in F major for recorder and strings was only recently attributed to Fasch and is written same dramatic quasi-recitative style as his Bassoon Concerto. It receives an idiomatic performance from the ‘Queen of the recorder’ (BBC Radio 3), Pamela Thorby.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Fasch was born into a family of lawyers and clerics. His father died when he was only eleven years old. According to an autobiography published in 1757 (the year before his death), he was heard singing by a relative who had connections with the court at Weissenfels and young Fasch was recruited into the musical ensemble there. Not long after, he became one of Johann Kuhnau’s first pupils at St Thomas, Leipzig and later read law at university. This, of course, was not unusual for musicians of the period, with families insisting that their children find a profession for life. It is unknown who financed Fasch’s studies. While in Leipzig, he became involved in what we would today call a ‘semi-professional’ musical group (then known as Collegium Musicum) which gathered socially and played the latest music. He later founded a second such group in the city, comprising mainly university students. To his delight, when he copied out parts for an overture suite which he had composed but headed with Telemann’s name, none of the musicians guessed the truth. Soon this group was providing music for university events and Fasch was commissioned to provide works, despite his own protestations that he lacked even basic knowledge of compositional techniques. In 1711, he wrote an opera for the prestigious Peter-Paul Fair in Naumburg.
At this point in his career, Fasch wanted to follow his Leipzig friends Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel and Johann David Heinichen by travelling to Italy which was then considered the ‘go to’ destination for hopeful young musicians. The Italians were masters of the virtuoso concerto and, above all, opera. Unfortunately for Fasch, the Duke of Gotha was not prepared to pay for such a venture, but he did give the young composer some money and letters of recommendation to travel to other German courts. Bitterly disappointed (at least, according to the autobiography), Fasch came up with a convincing plan B; he set out to visit his former prefect from St Thomas, Christoph Graupner, who had by then become Kapellmeister at the court of Hessen-Darmstadt, taking in as many of the courts with musical establishments on the way as he could. He spent more than three months with Graupner, studying composition and, presumably, playing violin in the court ensemble (he even wrote out some violin parts for his teacher’s church cantatas).
After several years employed in administrative roles (though with some musical activity), the next important station in Fasch’s career was Prague, where he was employed as a composer by Count Wenzel Morzin, whose ensemble included elite musicians from that part of the world. Their repertoire included the latest Italian works, including Vivaldi’s Op 8 set (featuring the famous ‘Four Seasons’). Indeed, the two years he spent in Prague could in some ways be considered the trip to Italy that Fasch never realized; the Morzin financial ledgers are full of payments to his agents south of the Alps for the procurement of the newest music.
In 1722, Fasch’s life changed. His friend, Stölzel (who had also worked in Prague), wrote from Gotha to tell him that the position of Kapellmeister at the neighbouring court of Anhalt-Zerbst was vacant. He arrived to take up the job in late September that year. Not long afterwards, news reached him that Johann Kuhnau (who had been in charge of music in Leipzig since Fasch’s school days) had died; Fasch was encouraged by a member of the city council to apply for the position. There were other contenders for the job, not least the most famous composer of the day, Telemann and Fasch’s former mentor, Graupner. Both were offered the job, but their current employers persuaded them not to accept by offering improved salaries and conditions.Of the remaining candidates, Fasch appears to have been the favourite, but he was not prepared to fulfil the requirement to teach Latin and seems to have withdrawn. As is well known, the position was eventually offered to Johann Sebastian Bach (more famous in those days as an organist than a composer).
Fasch remained (not altogether happily, it must be said—much of his responsibilities involved writing several cantatas per week and he did not share the court’s religious views) in Zerbst until his death in December 1758. Court politics aside, it seems that Fasch was appreciated by his employers; in the mid-1720s they paid the equivalent of his salary to the Dresden court in order that Fasch could spend several months there to keep abreast of the latest musical developments. We know from markings on Fasch’s autograph scores that Heinichen used his masses and psalm settings in services in the Saxon capital (as well as notating timings and the general reception of the works, he also re-wrote passages—sometimes extensively—suggesting that Fasch may have been taking lessons in composition). Surviving sources in Dresden’s famed Schranck II manuscripts collection also prove that Fasch took (or later sent) music to his colleague, the violinist Pisendel, who had performing materials written out by the court copyists. Indeed, a letter was published in a 1728 musical journal in which Fasch proposed the establishment of a music exchange network; specifically, he thought the sharing of complete sets of cantatas for the church year would give chapel masters more time for their other composing duties, but the scheme—which does seem to have been realized—might also have included other works before the publishing house Breitkopf and Härtel began selling music through their catalogues. It is surely no coincidence that the majority of Fasch’s surviving music is located in Darmstadt and Dresden.
It has often been suggested that the quartets Fasch wrote for two oboes, obbligato bassoon and continuo must have been written for a specific ensemble (or, at least, a specific bassoonist, so virtuosic are some of the lines) but no evidence has been found thus far to corroborate such a theory. Of course, five of Jan Dismas Zelenka’s sonatas are for the same line-up, so perhaps Dresden suggests itself as the most likely candidate. This theory is supported by the fact that three of the four Quartets recorded here (in B flat major, F major and G minor) survive uniquely as sets of performance materials in the Dresden collection, two of the three with markings by Pisendel. There are sources for the Quartet in D minor in both Darmstadt and Dresden. Of the four, the two minor key works are the most virtuosic in conception; the bassoonist in particular is severely stretched. They are, perhaps coincidentally, the most musically intense of all the works recorded here with the overlapping rising arpeggios and sighs at the beginning of the G minor and the whirlwind bassoon figure in the last movement of the D minor being especially effective. The major key works, in contrast, seem more ‘gallant’; graceful melodies and gently undulating harmonies lend the music a more modern feel. One could almost say that while the minor key Quartets really showcase the virtuosity of the performers, in some ways the major key works might have been designed as background music for a court dinner.
The four-movement Quartet in B flat major for recorder, oboe, violin and continuo is among one of Fasch’s most popular works. From the imitative opening which neatly introduces each of the instruments in turn, through to the G minor second ‘Largo’ with its accented chromatic lines and senza basso passages, there are catchy tunes and contrapuntal ingenuity in equal measure. The last movement in particular demands virtuosity from all concerned.
It seems likely that the Quartet in F major for horn, oboe, violin and continuo might have been inspired by similar works by Stölzel; the Hofkapelle library in Dresden includes a set of eight such works (copied in pairs). It might seem strange to combine a horn with oboe and violin, but in fact the natural horn was renowned as much for the suave quality of its sound as for its ability to carry across the hunting field.
Perhaps the least Baroque of the works on this programme, the Bassoon Concerto in C major comprises three movements. The central ‘Largo’ is framed by an ‘Allegro’ on either side, each of whose themes involve scales, arpeggios and trills. Fasch must have been aware of the virtuosic potential of the bassoon at least since his time in Prague; Vivaldi sent Count Morzin scores of concertos for the instrument and his band included the composer Antonín Reichenauer who also wrote solos for bassoon. The surviving materials for this particular work were written in the 1730s or 1740s by Graupner (further evidence of the constant circulation of manuscripts).
The Concerto in F major for recorder and strings is among the latest additions to the catalogue of Fasch’s works. It survives as a set of manuscript parts in the portion of the Harrach Collection (named after a wealthy family with a residence in Vienna and estates in the Czech Republic) that is in the New York Public Library, where until only a few years ago it was identified as a ‘Concerto in D minor by Rasch’. The parts were oddly bound and the outside of the viola part was uppermost; it was the only part with what looked like a composer’s name written on it, and the presence of C sharps suggested that the music was in D minor. Only when that portion of the collection came under closer scrutiny did the true identity of the piece—which is full of characteristic Fasch-isms—become confirmed. An extremely virtuosic work, the second of the three movements is in the same dramatic quasi-recitative style as the same movement of the Bassoon Concerto.
In his later years, Fasch struggled with debt; the source of it has not yet been identified, but correspondence with the Zerbst Church Charitable Association shows that he was anxious that his surviving children (among them Carl Fasch, who was C P E. Bach’s colleague at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin and who would establish the first great choral society in Germany, the Berlin Sing-Akademie) should not bear the burdens of his financial woes. Invariably his ducal employer approved each of the loans in glowing terms of Fasch’s loyal service, showing how much the man and his music were appreciated in his own lifetime. This selection of his finest chamber music demonstrates why.
Brian Clark © 2014