musica Dei donum

CD reviews

The Division Violin - Part I

Ensemble Schirokko Hamburg

rec: August 2007, Ochsenwerder, St Pankratius
Ambitus - amb 96 941 (69'34")

anon: Duke of Norfolk/Paul's Steeple; Thomas BALTZAR (1631?-1663): Almond; John come kiss me now; Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713) (attr): A Solo by Sign.r. Corelli; John ECCLES (1668-1735): Divisions on a Ground; Edward FINCH (1663-1738): The Cuckoo; Michel FARINEL (1649-1726): Division on a Ground; FRECKNOLD (?-?): Division; David MELL: John, come kiss me now; Anthony POOLE (1627-1692): A Division upon a Ground Bass; Daniel PURCELL (1664-1717): Chacone; Valentine READING (?-1704): Reading's Ground; Robert SMITH (1648-1675): A Division for 2 Trebles on a Ground; George TOLLETT (17th C): Tollett's Ground

Rachel Harris, violin; Barbara Messmer, viola da gamba; Andrea Cordula Baur, archlute; Carsten Lohff, harpsichord

The end of the monarchy and the establishment of the Commonwealth under Cromwell caused a rift in English musical history. As music in cathedrals was forbidden and the court had ceased to exist musicians and composers sought refuge in the homes and private chapels of the aristocracy. Public theatrical entertainment also had come to an end, so people sought after different ways of entertaining themselves with music. One of the ways to do so was to play music at home. As a result there was a growing market of music which was suitable for amateurs to play. John Playford made cleverly use of this as he established his own printing house. It was the same Commonwealth which gave him the opportunity to start his business as music printer: the end of the monarchy also meant the abolition of court monopolies on printing and publishing. One of his first collections was The English Dancing Master, printed in 1651, and containing popular tunes and country dances.

The collection The Division Violin, which was printed in 1684, is something different. It mostly contains so-called divisions, variations on a certain melody over a basso ostinato (a repeated bass pattern). This was an international genre, but it was especially popular in 17th-century England. And it remained popular well into the 18th century, as the collection was often reprinted, the last time in the 1730s. This explains the inclusion of composers who were only in their teens when the first edition was printed, like John Eccles (born 1668) or just 20, like Daniel Purcell.

The specific mentioning of the violin in the title of this collection is something noteworthy. In the first half of the 17th century the violin was played almost exclusively at court, and mostly by musicians from the continent. It was after the Restoration that foreign masters introduced the newest playing techniques and compositional styles in England. It was one of the effects of Charles II returning to the throne. He had been in France and was strongly influenced by what he had heard over there. French and Italian musicians came to England and caused astonishment and excitement with their virtuosic playing. One of them was Nicola Matteis.

The Division Violin contains pieces by another virtuoso, Thomas Baltzar, who came from Germany and had also been at the court of the Swedish Queen Christina. He came to England during the Commonwealth and played in private circles, before entering Charles II's Private Music in 1660. The variations on John, come kiss me now are probably the result of a kind of playing contest with the English violinist Davis Mell. Baltzar's playing contained double stopping as one can hear in the last of his divisions. Another technique which was new to England was the scordatura, a way of "detuning the violin, replacing the standard fifths with any possible interval", as Rachel Harris explains in the booklet. This technique can be heard in the last item on the programme, Reading's Ground, by Valentine Reading. This was originally a chaconne with 50 variations from a collection of 16 anonymous suites for scordatura violin which is attributed to Reading. These pieces not only give an idea of the growing influence of continental tastes but also show that at least some amateurs must have been very skilled players.

The collection also contains simpler, more folk-like pieces. Examples are Tollett's Ground by John Tollet and the anonymous The Duke of Norfolk, or Paul's Steeple. The disc opens with a piece by Edward Finch, called The Cuckoo. Don't be afraid, we don't get a whole series of cuckoo imitations here. The call of this bird is only quoted in the first movement. It is absent in the next two, slow and moderately fast respectively. Interesting is A Division upon a Ground Bass by Anthony Poole, an English musician - probably a gambist by profession - who had been studying at the English College in Rome and became ordained as a priest. His divisions also show the influence of continental playing technique as they include double stopping. One of the last divisions is a dialogue between violin and viola da gamba.

These two instruments are equals in A Division for 2 Trebles on a Ground by Robert Smith. The violin is playing solo without basso continuo in the Almond by Thomas Baltzar. Chaconnes were one of the most popular genres in the 17th century, and Daniel Purcell's Chacone is a fine specimen, in which quiet and more virtuosic variations are alternating. Also famous was the Folia; this is the subject of Michel Farinel's Division on a Ground.

A bit of a mystery is A Solo by Sign.r. Corelli. This short piece is not known from any printed collection of Corelli, and it could have been written by someone else in the style of Corelli, who after all was hugely popular in England. Also a mystery seems a composer with the name of Frecknold: he is not mentioned in the programme notes and there is also no entry in New Grove.

This is not the first time I have heard Rachel Harris. Elsewhere I have reviewed her splendid recording of violin sonatas by Johann Christian Hertel (the father of Johann Wilhelm). This new disc fully lives up to my expectations. Ms Harris shows her impressive technical skills in the more virtuosic pieces, but she also deals very well with the more 'popular' items. Tollett's Ground, for instance, seems to imitate the playing of folk fiddlers, and Rachel Harris gives a very good impression thereof as well. I noticed a differentiated approach to tempo (Finch), articulation and dynamics which make the divisions very enthralling. And the artists have a very good sense of rhythm which is of crucial importance in this repertoire.

The programme has been well put together. There is a nice variety between the more 'serious' and the more folk-like pieces. Also nice is the various scoring of the basso continuo. In the Division by Frecknold, for instance, the violin is supported by the viola da gamba only, in the piece by 'Corelli' it is only the harpsichord which accompanies the violin and in Daniel Purcell's Chacona just the archlute. The support of the continuo group is very sensitive and follows the violin very closely, resulting in an ideal balance between treble and bass line.

In short, this is an excellent, captivating and highly entertaining recording which sheds light on an interesting chapter of English music making in the late 17th century. The title says The Division Violin - Part 1. Can we expect a disc devoted to Part 2? I very much hope so.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Schirokko

CD Reviews