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Daniel Hope & Friends: Friedrich der Große - Musik aus Sanssouci

img  Tobias Fischer

Democracy is still an exotic fruit in Germany - even in its seventh consecutive decade as a republic, many of its inhabitants secretly feel drawn to the ideal of the benevolent monarch. Blame Frederick II. Widely despised during his reign, he has turned into one of the most revered of the country's former rulers, considered charming and yet assertive, enlightened and yet pragmatic, mildly progressive but with a firm set of values. Contrary to his father, a soldier's emperor who would brutally beat his son and applied a spartan philosophy to society, his eccentricities and contradictions, in hindsight at least, actually make him appear more human and likable: Frederick introduced fundamental press liberties, but when some journalists actually used it to heavily criticise him, he sent bullies their way. He invited Voltaire to his premises, but then quickly fell out with him. At one point, he decreed the prohibition of coffee to support the local beer industry, but continued drinking about seven to eight cups of it in the morning and an entire pot in the afternoon – purportedly adding champagne and a teaspoon of mustard for good measure.

The image of champagne and mustard makes for an apt metaphor of violinist Daniel Hope's perception of the late emperor as displayed on Friedrich der Große: Music aus Sanssouci. On the one hand, Frederick represented regality and splendour and the continuity of an old order to him. On the other, he stood for a style of governing which opened itself up to beauty and took daily life, in all of its worries and wonders, into consideration. To Hope, Frederick has remained relevant to this day not just because of his eccentricities, but because his ideas about the relationship between the individual and society seem as contemporary in a 21st century torn between increasingly radical demands for complete freedom and tighter governmental control, as they were when enlightenment first appeared all across Europe: In documentary The big Frederick_Remix, shot, produced and aired in conjunction with the release of the album, paradoxically, artistic tributes to him seemed rather ambiguous when approached from a contemporary angle (DJs Lexy and K Paul reworking a Frederick piece into a club track; a breakdance ensemble struggling to find ways to dance to classical music) and most convincing, when the original idea was left intact and to speak for itself – as when street-art rebel Emess's sent wooden boards displaying the emperor's personal motto „Jeder soll nach seiner eigenen Facon glücklich werden“ (roughly: „Everyone may lead a life after his own fashion“) floating down Berlin's river Spree.

And yet, it isn't always easy to distinguish fact from fiction. On his 300th birthday, Frederick's personality is as much shrouded in mystery as it is drowned out by anecdotes. His obsession for music, however, can hardly be exagerated. To Frederick, the works of Bach & co were the punk rock of his youth and as a teenager, he secretely took up flute lessons with renowned teacher Johann Joachim Quantz. His father, forever the ascetic, was infuriated to learn of this fondness for superflous and unmanly activities and answered his son's passion for the arts with physical violence. Frederick attempted to flee for France with befriended luitenant and fellow music-fan Hans Hermann von Katte, but when their „betrayal“ was discovered, Frederick's father had Katte executed before his son's eyes. And yet, he could never break his will. As long as he survived, though, Frederick knew that time was on his side. In 1736, he moved to Schloss Rheinsberg with a wife he did not love and dedicated his time to studying philosophy and working on his first own compositions. When, four years later, he was encrowned, not just did the breath of enlightenment enter Prussia's political arena, but its court opened itself up to the arts, with music being played at Sancoussi whenever the king would not be away on one of his numerous campaigns.

What kind of a composer was Frederick? As the opening piece on Friedrich der Große: Music aus Sanssouci, his Sinfonia in D major from „Il re pastore“, shows, he enjoyed both a precision of form as well as a sense of grandeur, a combination of the intimate and the larger than life. In this, he was very much in tune with the rising 18th century ideal of Innigkeit, an at the time new tendency in music, which, inspired by poetry, sought to transform it from an abstract art into an expression of the composer's emotions. The compositional effect of the transformational process was stupefying: In the finale of his Flute Concerto No.1 in G major, which closes off the CD in a transcription for violin by Hope, the main theme is sent through passages of exultation and moments of doubt and reflection, shooting through a sentient roller coaster ride of tension and release. The high-pulse-rate-tendency of his style reflects the fact that Frederick did not write as part of his education or to raise his profile, but because he genuinely liked to perform. Effectively, he wrote for himself: All of his 121 sonatas, four concertos and various etudes are scored for the flute. It is this pure joy to play, rather than any particular immediately recognisable script, which has kept his pieces in the repertoire of many instrumentalists until today.

Well aware of his own limitations and appreciative of the mastery of others, Frederick surrounded him with some of the leading artists of his time. Some of the most important among them are included on the album: Johann Sebastian Bach, who participated in a sort of musical challenge with him, resulting in a six-voiced fugue. Quantz, who was part of Frederick's entourage as early as 1741 and remained part of until his employer's death - just how he seminal his influence on Frederick as a composer was is demonstrated by the juxtaposition of Frederick's works with Quantz's Flute Concerto in G Major, which achieves a sense of sonic luminescence through seemingly trivial gestures. While Quantz composed and improved his master's performative skills, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach acted as bandmaster at Sanssouci. The leading representative of Innigkeit, his influence was seminal, easily eclipsing his father's standing and prestige during his lifetime. His style took the idea of emotional exposition to its temporary climax, with a piece like the included „Violin Sonata“ pacing through Raphael Alpermann's funky cembalo figures and Hope's bittersweet violin lines without ever finding a point of repose, a moment, when the inner tension would be satisfyingly resolved.

On the occasion of Frederick's 300th birthday, projects bringing together the famous monarch and his mentors, are as predictable as fireworks on new year's day. Here, however, things are different. Not only are  Daniel Hope and his friends, including flutist Daniela Koch, playing these pieces without pretence and full of zest and energy. Even more importantly, the underlying concept of, as it were, spending a cultural evening at Sanssouci is not just another cheap marketing fad, but truly adds to the overall impression of the performance: There is a famous painting, also included in the booklet to the album, depicting Frederick in concert with CPE Bach, observed by members of the court, including Quantz. By closing one's eyes and listening to the CD, one is truly transported back to this event and its festive mood of great anticipation and joy. The temporal distance between the listener and the music is canceled out through palpable enthusiasm. Hope and his ensemble's fascination for the emperor is far more genuine and real than the superimposed interest of some of participants of The Great Frederick-Remix and in the moment of performance, it literally connects, across the ages, with the pleasure Frederick must have felt when he could lay the worries of governing aside and pick up his flute.

The result is a veritable time travel, without ever telling its audience which way the journey is going: Whether one is going backwards or whether Frederick has bridged three hundred years to join the celebrations in his honour remains intriguingly open to interpretation.
By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Daniel Hope
Homepage: Daniela Koch
Homepage: Deutsche Grammophon Recordings

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