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"Bach before Bach"

Chouchane Siranossian, violin; Balász Máté, bass violin, cello; Leonardo García Alarcón, harpsichord

rec: June 2020, Dijon, Opéra
Alpha - 758 (© 2021) (64'22")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Sonata in e minor (BWV 1023); Sonata in G (BWV 1021); Johann Sebastian BACH (attr): Fugue in g minor (BWV 1026); ?Johann Sebastian BACH / ?Johann Georg PISENDEL, 1687-1755): Sonata in c minor (BWV 1024) (adagio); Carlo FARINA (c1600-1639): Sonata V detta La Farina; Georg MUFFAT (1653-1704): Sonata in D; Andreas Anton SCHMELZER (1653-1701) (attr): Sonata Die Türkenschlacht bei Wien 1683; Johann Jakob WALTHER (1650-1717): Passacagli in d minor; Johann Paul VON WESTHOFF (1656-1705): Sonata III in d minor (Imitazione delle Campane)

Sometimes a disc comes with a title that in itself makes little sense or raises more questions than it answers. The disc under review here is an example. "Bach before Bach" - what is that supposed to mean? The idea behind this project was to document the tradition in which Bach developed as a composer for the violin. Chouchane Siranossian, in an interview in the booklet, expresses the idea that the composers for the instrument of his time (Westhoff, Pisendel) and those of the previous century "had a substantial influence on him". There can be no doubt that composers were influenced by what had come down to them from tradition. Learning in the baroque era was based on the principles of imitatio and aemulatio: an initially competitive imitation and finally the attempt to develop further and even surpass the imitation. However, it is hard to prove whether Bach was influenced by one particular composer. It seems very likely that he knew Johann Paul von Westhoff's partitas for violin solo, as for some time he was his colleague in Weimar. As far as the other composers are concerned, there are reasons to doubt whether he even knew them or their music.

The earliest composer is Carlo Farina, one of the exponents of the new style that emerged in Italy around 1600. That style manifested itself in virtuosic and idiomatic music for specific instruments, such as the violin. Farina worked for some time at the court in Dresden, and published several volumes of instrumental music during that time. There is general agreement that with them he laid the foundation of what was to become the German violin school. One of its representatives was Johann Jakob Walther. It is a major blunder that the passacaglia (as it is called in the track-list) is attributed to Johann Gottfried Walther, Bach's relative and colleague in Weimar. Even many reviewers seem not to have noticed this error. They should have, as the style is very different from that of Bach's time, and Johann Gottfried has not written anything else than keyboard music. It is a brilliant piece, and attests to the reputation of Johann Jakob as one of the great virtuosos of his time. The correct title, by the way, is Passacagli (corrected in the header).

Georg Muffat has become best-known as the earliest advocate of the so-called goûts-réunis, the mixture of the French and Italian - and in his case also German - styles. In the field of chamber music he wrote only one piece, the Sonata in D. It is an interesting piece that is in the middle between the early sonatas, which are products of the stylus phantasticus, and the sonatas of the early 18th century. In the 17th century, most sonatas comprised several sections of contrasting character, which followed each other attacca. That is the case here for most of the sonata. However, the opening slow movement is clearly separated from the rest, as was to become the standard in the 18th century. Whether Bach knew this sonata is impossible to prove.

The same goes for the piece that closes this disc. I assume any reader of this review has heard of Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, alongside Biber the main representative of te Austrian/Bohemian violin school and for most of his life in the service of the imperial court in Vienna. The piece called here Victori der Christen is attributed to his eldest son, Andreas Anton. The title is incorrect, as it is only the last section of this work that bears this title. The correct title is Sonata Die Türkenschlacht bei Wien 1683 (The battle against the Turks at Vienna 1683). It refers to the Turkish siege of Vienna that year. The sonata is an arrangement of the Sonata X 'Die Kreuzigung' (The Crucifixion) from the Mystery Sonatas by Biber. It was transposed to another key and at the end of the work a new movement was added, describing the "victory of the Christians".

The fact that the entire piece is given the title of the closing section and that it is not mentioned that the piece is only attributed to Schmelzer junior are among several inaccuracies. In the case of the Fugue BWV 1026 it is indicated that it is part of a sonata. It is not; the fugue has been preserved as a separate piece, and although most scholars agree that Bach is the likely composer, it is not proven beyond any doubt. Bach is also mentioned as the composer of the Sonata in c minor (BWV 1024). However, most scholars believe it is not written by Bach, but probably by Johann Georg Pisendel. The only pieces that are undoubtedly from Bach's pen are the two sonatas for violin and basso continuo BWV 1021 and 1023.

These are blots on a production which otherwise is interesting and musically compelling. Apart from the fact that the connection between the pieces is not very clear and that it is hard to prove which of them was known by Bach, let alone influenced him, one could argue that the selection of pieces could have been more adventurous. In the interview in the booklet, Chouchane Siranossian states: "There's a frequent tendency to forget the violin repertoire before Johann Sebastian Bach and his Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin." Such a statement can be expected from someone who only discovered this repertoire recently. Reinhard Goebel has played a decisive role in this process of discovery, but he could have told her that he and many others have recorded quite some violin music of the 17th century. All the pieces included here have been recorded before, mostly even more than once, such as Walthers Passacagli.

However, if we consider this disc as an attempt to demonstrate the development of violin playing and composing for the violin in the German-speaking world, the pieces selected here certainly do the trick. The fact that this repertoire is played by Siranossian, who is equally at home in romantic and modern repertoire, may attract some music lovers who have stayed away from such early music. She is undoubtedly a highly-gifted violinist, and her technical and musical qualities come impressively to the fore here. She plays with great intensity and engagement, and the connection between vocal and instrumental music, which Leonardo García Alarcón points out in the booklet, is convincingly demonstrated. Important aspects of performance practice, such as articulation and dynamics, are applied here in the interest of an interpretation that is based on rhetorics and Affekt. That Siranossian sometimes tends to exaggerate a little, can be easily forgiven, as there is so much to enjoy and admire here. Balász Máté and García Alarcón are the perfect partners in the basso continuo. It is nice that Máté uses the bass violin rather than the cello in the pieces from the 17th century.

All in all, this is a fine disc, which will give every lover of the violin much pleasure. That makes it especially disappointing that the production leaves something to be desired.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Chouchane Siranossian
Leonardo Garcia Alarcon

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