Violinist Augusta McKay Lodge and her violist sister Georgina are a throwback to a time when classical musicians were also routinely expected to be good improvisers. Their new album J.G. Graun: Chamber Music from the Court of Frederick the Great – streaming at the violist’s music page – unearths rare baroque treasures for a global audience. What’s most exciting about this recording is that it contains a small handful of world premieres. It’s also noteworthy for including two of the earliest known works for viola as a featured instrument. And in keeping with a mid-eighteenth century German esthetic, the ensemble revel in opportunities to add individualistic embellishments, dynamics, and even entire parts. Much as obscure archival works are becoming more and more of a meme, this elegant and often unexpectedly colorful album is a real find. The duo have assembled an all-star cast here which includes Eva Lymenstull on cello and David Schulenberg on harpsichord.
They open with Johann Gottlieb Janitsch’s somberly crescendoing Trio Sonata in G minor For Violin, Viola and Continuo. The pedalpoint of the viola and harpsichord build a hypnotic quality early in the second movement, then waltz through the conclusion. Music for the entitled classes from this era is seldom so dark; needless to say, this is a welcome rediscovery.
Schulenberg reaches for an opulent rubato to open Johann Gottlieb Graun’s Sonata in C minor For Viola and Keyboard, Lodge rising from spare, plaintive phrasing to a long series of biting, lively fugal exchanges with the harpsichord. There are plenty of convention-defying surprises in this piece: kudos to the Lodges for resurrecting it.
Graun’s Sonata in B-flat For Violin and Keyboard is considerably more lighthearted, but this is a vigorous performance, lit up by Lodge’s steely legato, and Schulenberg’s playful ornamentation and pacing. The short phrases of the Sonata in C For Cello and Basso Continuo, by Carl Heinrich Graun, are more predictable, Lymenstull’s shifts in attack and dynamics front and center.
Franz Benda’s Sonata in C minor For Viola and Basso Continuo begins with elegantly wary pacing from Schulenberg behind Lodge’s gorgeously bittersweet resonance and melismas. The brooding counterpoint goes straight back to J.S. Bach and so does the sheer tunefulness: it’s arguably the high point of the album.
The Lodges save their most animated embellishments for the final work here, J. G. Graun’s warmly nocturnal, lilting Trio Sonata in A For Violin, Viola and Basso Continuo, anchored once again by Schulenberg’s uncluttered, nuanced harpsichord parts.