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Johann Paul VON WESTHOFF (1656 - 1705): Sei Partite violino senza basso accompagnato

Gunar Letzbor, violin

rec: Feb 18 - 21, 2009, Verbania, Villa San Remigio (Sala della Musica)
Arcana - A 354 ( 2010) (62'51")

Partia I in a minor; Partia II in A; Partia III in B flat; Partia IV in C; Partia V in d minor; Partia VI in D

Johann Paul von Westhoff is one of the main representatives of the German violin school which developed in the second half of the 17th century. In contrast to other composers of music for the violin, like Biber and Schmelzer, little attention has been paid to Von Westhoff. The article in New Grove, for instance, hardly does justice to his importance. The only piece which is regularly played is his Sonata 'La Guerra' for violin and bc. But his main contribution to the development of violin playing are the Sei Partite for violin solo which Gunar Letzbor has recorded. It is the first recording of the complete set on a period instrument.

Von Westhoff was born in Dresden and became a member of the Dresden Hofkapelle, like his father. He remained at the service of the court until 1697. He made a number of journeys through Europe, and gave public performances. He visited the French court at Versailles in 1682 and played his Sonata La Guerra for Louis XIV, who liked it so much that Von Westhoff had to repeat it several times. The sonata was published in the magazine Mercure galant, which also published a suite for violin solo. In addition to his musical activities he taught French and Italian, and held a professorship in languages at Wittenberg University for some years. In 1699 he entered the service of Duke Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, and he stayed there until his death in 1705.

It is very likely that during his time in Weimar he has met Johann Sebastian Bach. From March to September 1703 Bach worked as chamber musician at the court; in 1708 he would return to Weimar as chamber musician and organist. It is assumed the Partitas for violin solo by Von Westhoff were a direct inspiration for Bach to compose his Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin.

These Partitas were printed in Dresden in 1696. But the fact that the Mercure Galant printed a suite for violin solo as early as 1683 proves that Von Westhoff started to compose for solo violin early in his career. In his liner notes Gregory Barnett states that the partitas "likely represent an accumulation of repertory from his virtuoso career". It is quite surprising, though, that in his own time these partitas were hardly taken note of. Johann Gottfried Walther, for instance, doesn't make mention of them in his biographical article on Von Westhoff in his Musicalisches Lexicon of 1732. And even in modern times it was not until the 1970s that these works were thoroughly examined, which resulted in the publication of a modern edition.

The notation of these partitas is noteworthy. "A curiosity of the original print is its use of a single eight-line staff that incorporates C- and G-clefs simultaneously." The main feature of these partitas, musically speaking, is the use of polyphony. The partitas contain many two-, three- and four-note chords. This way no basso continuo part is needed as the violin part delivers a harmonic foundation on its own.

"One effect of Westhoff's polyphonic style, particularly noticeable in the allemandes and the sarabandes, is to add weight to the violin's sound. At times (...) Westhoff's chordal style creates the effect of two violins playing together in thirds or sixths, akin to trio sonata textures. The simulation of two or even three instruments by the solo violin is particularly striking in the gigues from the second, third, and sixth suites. Here he creates the effect of accumulating voices over successive phrases by starting with single notes, following in double stops, and then continuing in triple stops" (Gregory Barnett).

Von Westhoff was no less virtuoso than his contemporaries Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer or Johann Jakob Walther. But whereas Walther, for instance, bragged that he was able to imitate "a violin choir, the tremulant organ, a guitar, bagpipes, two drums and timpani, a hurdy-gurdy and a sweet harp" on his violin, Von Westhoff avoids any 'pictorial' element in his compositions. All partitas contain the same four dances: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. They are all in binary form and contain Italian as well as French elements.

In his reflections on the performance Gunar Letzbor states that "this composer skilfully avoided tempting mannerist decoration or gratuitous virtuoso effect to explore, on the contrary, all the possibilities of polyphonic violin-playing and taking the risk of long series of four-part chords." He adds that it has taken some time before he developed a real enthusiasm for these partitas. The result of his extensive research into this repertoire and his performances in a series of concerts is an impressive and highly convincing recording of these six partitas.

It is quite possible they don't immediately strike a chord with the listener. Like Letzbor one probably needs some time to warm to them, but it is worth the effort. I have listened to them with growing interest and Letzbor convinced me that these suites are more than just interesting examples of the standard of violin playing at the end of the 17th century. These partitas are not just historically important but also of musical value in their own right.

In my view this recording is one of the most important of recent years. It is a musical monument for one of the greatest violinists in history who also was a source of inspiration for those other brilliant pieces for solo violin, the Sonatas and Partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Johan van Veen ( 2010)

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Gunar Letzbor

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