INKPOT#79 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: PACHELBEL Musicalische Ergotzung. Canon & Gigue, etc. London Baroque (Harmonia Mundi)
Musique de chambre
(Six Trio Sonatas for two scordatura violins and bass) Partie 5 in G major
Partie 4 in G major
Partie 5 in F sharp minor
Canon & Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo LONDON BAROQUE
Ingrid Seifert Richard Gwilt Irmgard Schaller Andrew Manze violins
Charles Medlam cello, viola da gamba Richard Egarr harpsichord, organ
William Carter theorbo
HARMONIA MUNDI 40th Anniversary Edition HMD 941539
by Soo Kian Hing
Mention Pachelbel, and you’re likely to get “Canon” as the reflexive answer. It is true that his Canon is a timeless, delightful piece of ingenuity, especially if well-played by an ensemble with a good grasp of its structure, so that it does not drown in monotony or repetitiveness. In fact, Pachelbel fashioned the work as a continuous flow of 28 variations, with 3 violins playing exactly the same score each staggered one phrase apart (i.e. a canon; so that, interestingly, all three performers could read off the same score, starting eight measures later than the previous player), fully integrated on top of an ostinato bass line and a harpsichord continuo. The effect, as we all know, is a beautiful atmospheric piece with a gentle ebb and flow, not only in rhythm but also in density, as the three voices join and part, playing solo and in unison.
The Gigue that accompanies the Canon is written in a contrapuntal manner as well. Though it lacks the outstanding beauty of its companion, it is nevertheless a brief but lively piece, providing for a quirky aftertaste to balance the Canon.
The Musicalische Ergotzung, or “Musical Delight”, is a collection of six Suites (or Partie), printed in Nuremberg, 1695, while Pachelbel was at the height of his career as an organist (the profession for which he was best known back in the 17th century). These are Baroque dance suites for two scordatura violins and bass, scordatura violins being ‘mistuned’ violins with certain strings tuned to another note either to create special chordal effects or to facilitate passages which present difficult fingerwork in the normal tuning.
The suites have the typical Allemande-Courante-Sarabande-Gigue sequence, with the addition of newly-fashionable French-dance movements like the Ballet and the Gavotte. All six are introduced with a short one-movement Sonata (hence the name Trio Sonates); a number of movements are in fugal form showing off Pachelbel’s understanding of contrapuctal writing, and the rest have a predominantly first-violin melody over the bass. These suites are delightful little musical gems indeed.
The other three partie show Pachelbel in a fancier mood, with two suites ending in ‘Finale’ movements and the third in the quaint key of F-sharp minor (an extremely difficult key to use in his time because of meantone temperament where B# is not the same as C, as opposed to equal temperament exemplified by Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier). The two Partie 4 have seven and eight movements respectively, and the slower minor-key movements languish in evocative voices while faster movements shine with showy vibrance.
The London Baroque have an excellent sense of conversation, and in their hands Pachelbel’s music is not yet another set of Baroque suites set to play in the background during State functions; rather, individual pieces have characters of their own and the whole is a delightful collection of finely-played dance suites. If the pieces do not sound like the indicated pitch for those with sharp ears, it is not the recording, but rather the instruments themselves, for over the centuries the absolute concert pitch has been progressively raised, and ‘authentic’ Baroque music as we hear it today actually sounds flat by almost one semitone (A=415, typically).
Meanwhile, if you play the music in a quiet room, you can almost imagine yourself strolling along the gilded hallways of Baroque Europe, where an evening of entertainment meant a string quartet, with perhaps a harpsichordist, delighting a small collection of bewigged gentlemen and powdered ladies in the tranquil intimacy of a drawing room.
This disc is available at or can be ordered from Borders (Wheelock Place) or Tower Records (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City).
Soo Kian Hing powders up for another year of wigs, chandeliers and champagne.
538: 16.6.1999 Soo Kian Hing