Karl Kohaut: Haydn's Lute Player

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The lute experienced its greatest popularity during the renaissance and early baroque period. During the 18th century it started to decline. Many composers of the...
The lute experienced its greatest popularity during the renaissance and early baroque period. During the 18th century it started to decline. Many composers of the late baroque compose not a note for the instrument. The German lute virtuoso Silvius Leopold Weiss was one of the last representatives of a long and impressive tradition.

The fate of the lute in the second half of the 18th century is not that well known among general music-lovers. In that time its music was still very much in demand, especially among amateurs. The various catalogues of the music publisher Breitkopf between 1761 and 1771 contain large numbers of pieces for lute solo as well as for lute and other instruments. There were also some highly-skilled lute players who composed music for their own instrument, like Johann Kropfgans (a pupil of Weiss), Rudolf Straube (a pupil of Bach), Joachim Bernhard Hagen and Karl Kohaut. It is probably typical of the time, though, that the latter two were also performing as violinists.

Karl Kohaut was born in Vienna as son of a musician, and apart from being a professional violin and lute player he was employed as civil servant in the service of the Viennese court. In 1778 he reached the position of court secretary. It seems that it was mainly because of his musical skills that he was held in high regard by his employer - the later emperor Joseph II. Joseph wrote to his mother, empress Maria Theresia, that he was no use as a secretary, "because he always had a cold".

When in 1764 Joseph travelled to Frankfurt for his coronation he visited the abbey of Melk twice, first before he went to Frankfurt, and then on his way back to Vienna. For these occasions festive music had to be written, and Kohaut was elected to compose the music. He was honoured for this by being raised to the nobility.

In Vienna he moved in the circles around Gottfried van Swieten, and participated in the string quartet performances with Mozart and Haydn. He also composed music for the lute, both solo and in ensemble. In addition he wrote 12 symphonies and a solo concerto for double-bass.

The latter is one of the earliest solo concertos for this instrument in history. It is remarkable that it is the only concerto which requires the five-stringed instrument tuned in D which was widespread in Vienna at the time. This suggests that Kohaut must have been well acquainted with the features of the double-bass. That is confirmed by the music historian Maximilian Stadler (1748-1833) who wrote that Kohaut was a "master of the violon" (referring to the violone or double bass viol). The accompaniment is - in line with the Viennese fashion of the time - for two violins and bass. The term "bass" refers to the double bass, as Kohaut makes a clear distinction between the cello and the double bass. As a result we hear two double basses, although of a different type, which leads to a quite peculiar sound.

The double-bass also participates in the other compositions on the programme. The Divertimento Primo in B flat is for lute obbligato, two violins and bass, whereas the Concerto for lute in B flat and the Sinfonia in f minor are scored for two violins, viola and bass. The latter is notable for its closeness to the style of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and it is suggested Kohaut could have become acquainted with the music of this Bach during the concerts at Van Swieten's. The work is in three movements, but the first consists of a sequence of contrasting sections, one of which is a fugue. This work was still appreciated in the latter half of the 19th century by Eduard Hanslick.

The Divertimento in B flat is more than what one usually associates with this kind of music. It has more depth, and is less easy on the ear than other music of this kind. I have the feeling, though, that this is also due to the performance. The heavy attacks of the strings and the strong dynamic accents probably make this piece more serious and lend it more weight than it needs. That is also the case with the Trio in F, which is attributed to Haydn, but doesn't sound very Haydnesque. It is scored for lute, obbligato violin and bass. This scoring also suggests a divertimento-like piece, but its length is not what one would expect, with its three movements each taking more than six minutes. It is a substantial piece, but again I feel that it is given too much weight.

That doesn't diminish my admiration and appreciation of what Ars Antiqua Austria delivers here. Again Gunar Letzbor and his colleagues have come up with neglected and curious repertoire which sheds an interesting light on a curious aspect of musical life in Vienna in the classical era. Kohaut deserves his own place among the Viennese classics, and the Sinfonia in f minor has made me curious about his other symphonies. As there are not that many solo concertos for the double-bass, Kohaut's Concerto in D is an interesting addition to the repertoire. Hubert Hoffmann, who also wrote the comprehensive liner-notes, gives an outstanding performance of the lute parts. Equally excellent is Jan Krigovsky as the double-bass soloist.

This disc is great stuff for curious minds, who like to broaden their musical horizon.

-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: October 02, 2009

  • UPC: 0608917232325

  • Catalog Number: CC72323

  • Label: Challenge

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Franz Joseph Haydn, Karl Ignatz Kohaut

  • Conductor: Gunar Letzbor

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Ars Antiqua Austria

  • Performer: Gunar Letzbor