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Fanfare Magazine: 39:1 (09-10/2015) 
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Reviewer: Barry Brenesal

August Kühnel (1645–c. 1700) was by all accounts one of the most celebrated bass viol performers during that instrument’s international heyday. He easily secured a number of well placed court positions in Moritzburg, Darmstadt, Weimer, Dresden, and Kassel, and spent time as a traveling virtuoso, touring not just the German states but England. All of Kühnel’s music remains in manuscript, save for one collection: his Sonate ò Partite ad una ò due viole da gamba, con il basso continuo, which saw light of day in 1698, and was reissued three years later. Curiously, at a time when the convention was to publish groups of six pieces, the composer issued 14, six of which were for two bass viols and continuo, and eight for one bass viol. He was then a court musician to Charles I, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, and perhaps recognized that the generous ruler’s financial support was a golden opportunity to get as much of his current work into print as possible.

On the basis of these pieces, Kühnel was a master of the French and Italian styles, as well as the hybrid les goûts réunis that first gained popularity in France through such works as Couperin’s sonades. The idea of a fixed sonata form was still a novelty during much of the composer’s career, and his conception of its structure—which he referred to variously as sonata, sonatina, partita, and serenata—was fluid. In Corellian mode, as in the Sonatina VI, there are four standard movements, but the Francophile Sonata I is a suite with five dances led off by a prelude in two sections. His Sonata III, on the other hand, is a lengthy single movement, marked aria variata, and his mixed style Sonatina V is a seven-movement suite. Throughout, Kühnel demonstrates impressive skill in the handling of his chosen instrument, as well as an ability to write music that regularly confounds expectations. He is also adept at technical feats that in other hands might have come across as little more than academic exercises. A good example is the previously mentioned Sonatina VI, an Italianate echo work. The endless echo effect is treated ingeniously to avoid monotony: as a sectional cadence; an expressive device; a means to advancing harmonic progressions; a way to break up regular phrases; and as a motif half-covered by the opening of a contrasting theme.

Gambists Susie Napper and Margaret Little have been performing together for over three decades, and it shows in their work here. Though it’s a truism, it bears repeating that you don’t get that kind of rapport overnight, or even in a year or two. Mélisande Coriveau takes part in the continuo, but has her moments to shine as third bass violist in the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth sonatinas, which support three separate lines. (Kühnel suggested that the other three, as well as four pieces for a single viol, could be played without continuo.) The continuo is otherwise filled out with Sylvain Bergeron, theorbo, and harpsichordist Eric Milnes, who perform their roles diligently.

Spirited readings by Les Voix Humaines of unduly neglected music, in reasonably balanced sound: The only shadow over all this is a disc length could easily have included a few of the solo sonatas, as well. But it’s a very thin shadow in the face of all else this release offers.



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