musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"The great violins, volume 3: Antonio Stradivari, 1685 - The Klagenfurt Manuscript"

Peter Sheppard Skærved, violin

rec: Jan 25 & July 31, 2018, London, St Michael's, Highgate
Athene - ATH 23206 (2 CDs) (© 2020) (2.22'10")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] Præambulus in A; [Allemande] in A; [Minuetto] in A; Finale in A; Allamand in G; Courent in G; Sarabande in G; [Gigue] in A; [Præambulus] in G; [Courent] in G; Sarabande in G; Gigue in G; Preludio in g minor; [Allemande] in g minor; [Sarabande] in d minor; [Allemande] in g minor; [Minuetto] in g minor; [Sarabande] in g minor; [Gigue] in G; [Minuetto] in E; Præludium in d minor; [Allemande] in d minor; Courrente in d minor; Sarabande in D; [Minuetto] in d minor; Sarabande in d minor; [Minuetto] in D; Preambulus in A; [Minuetto] in A; [Gigue] in A; [Allemande] in A; [Passepied] in A; [Sarabande] in A; [Courent] in A; Double in A; [Double] in A; [Minuetto] in A; [Finale] in A; Pfefferstossl in D; [Sarabande] in D; [Præludium] in D; [Gigue] in D; [Marcia] in d minor; [Minuetto] in d minor; [Gigue] in d minor; [Courent] in d minor; Aria in D; Courent in D; Sarabande in D; Sarabande in D; [Gigue] in D; [Gigue] in D; [Præludium] in d minor; [Minuetto] in d minor; [Courent] in d minor; [Double] in d minor; [Præludium] in D; Allamande in D; Courent in D; [Gigue] in g minor; [Sarabande] in g minor; [Double] in g minor; [Gigue] in g minor; [Minuetto] in g minor; [Double] in g minor; [Courent] in g minor; [Gigue] in g minor; Gigue in G; Gigue in G; [Præludium] in A; [Sarabande] in a minor; [Siciliana] in a minor; [Gigue] in a minor; [Præludium] in A; [Gigue] in e minor; [Minuet] in g minor; [Gigue] in C; [Gigue] in d minor; [Tema con variazioni] in A; [Gigue] in A; [Gigue] in D; [Gigue] in g minor; [Gigue] in c minor; [Gigue] in D; [Gigue] in D; [Gigue] in A; [Allemande] in g minor; [Allemande] in b minor; [Courent] in b minor; [Minuetto] in b minor; [Sarabande] in c minor; [Gigue] in g minor; [Gigue] in a minor; [Sarabande] in a minor; [Minuetto] in g minor; [Courent] in F

The violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved has made many recordings of a wide repertoire, from the baroque period to the present time. A few years ago he started a series of recordings in which he plays historical violins. The present disc is the third in the series. The title page has "The Great Violins" and mentions the violin which is used here: an instrument by Antonio Stradivari of 1685.

In this series Skærved largely focuses on music that is not generally known. That certainly goes for what he plays here: music from a manuscript preserved in the Landesmuseum Kärnten in Klagenfurt in Austria; hence its name, the 'Klagenfurt manuscript'. It dates from around 1685. Nearly all the pieces included in it are scored for violin without accompaniment. The few pieces that have a basso continuo part, are omitted in this recording. All the pieces come without the name of the composer. After having studied the manuscript thoroughly, Skærved has come to the conclusion that the handwriting is not that of a copyist, but rather the composer. One of the reasons is the character of the errors, which appear in the collection, as they use to do in any manuscript of the time. In his opinion, they are not the typical copyist's errors, but those one may expect from a composer. "These range from emendations, revisions of passages - including deletions and additions - to the text, through to what might be called 'creative mistakes'."

As far as the possible identity of the composer is concerned, Skærved believes that it is very likely a nun or lay sister, living in the convent of St. Georgen am Längsee in Carinthia, where the manuscript has been found. "This is only my speculation, but I am prepared to suggest that this was as likely to have been the case as not, and the anonymity of the source, sometimes referred to as a homogeneous sisterhood of similar minds, increases my confidence that that this is the case. Benedictine nuns in the 17th Century are nearly always anonymous: I have come to the conclusion that this manuscript is an extraordinary, even brilliant personal artistic work by one of these."

The two discs of this set comprise 96 pieces. Most of them are dances; some are specifically called that way, such as gigue or sarabande, but most come without a title. There are also some more 'neutral' titles, such as praeludium and finale. In the tracklist the pieces that Skærved has given a title in accordance with their character are between brackets. One of the features of the collection is that many pieces require scordatura, a tuning of the violin which is different from its conventional tuning (GDAE). This can hardly come as a surprise to those who know violin music from Bohemia and Austria of the late 17th century, when scordatura was very common, as in particular the oeuvre of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber shows. There are different ways to indicate the scordatura that is required, and one of them is the 'tablature' method. That is the one used in this manuscript, just as in the oeuvre of Biber. Skærved points out that scordatura is not just a matter ot pitch, but also of timbre and colour. "It is clear that 17th century composers who used such tunings were seeking these subtle, or dramatic timbral and colour adjustments."

This can be experienced during listening thanks to the way Skærved has ordered the pieces. He did not look for 'suites', but rather plays a series of pieces with the same tuning, which is then followed by a sequence of pieces in a different tuning. Given the fact that these pieces are rather short - only a few take more than two minutes, and some only a little more than thirty seconds - it is probably not advisable to listen to these discs at a stretch. It is recommendable, though, to listen to several groups in different keys and tunings, in order to get a feeling for the differences.

Skærved became acquainted with the Klagenfurt manuscript at about the same time as with the violin he uses here, and he sees that as an ideal combination: "[Instrument] and music proved to be ideally suited for each other - the violin illuminated the manuscript, and the music illuminated the instrument." The violin is often referred to as a violino piccolo, but Skærved argues that this is based on the wrong idea that the violin at that time was standardized. In fact, this process of standardization took place in the course of the 18th century. "This standardisation led to a body length of 350-350mm for violins becoming accepted as the norm, whereas the demands of music-making throughout most of the 17th century called for a greater variety of sizes of instruments from large to small (for the soprano 'end' of violin 'consorts' or 'concerti'), such as this one, which has a back length of 328mm." The instrument used here has been modernized in the 19th century, but for this recording it was fitted with uncovered gut strings, and Skærved uses a bow that was made for him, based on bows used in Italy and Austria in the mid-17th century. To some extent, one could call this combination 'hybrid'.

It would be interesting to hear this music on a real 'baroque' violin. Given the quality of the music, it is rather surprising that to date no performer seems to have taken note of this important collection of pieces for solo violin. That is all the more surprising, as the repertoire for violin without accompaniment is rather small, as far as the baroque period is concerned. It is probably not to be expected that someone else is going to record the entire collection, as Skærved has done. However, it seems entirely appropriate to include some pieces from it in recitals and recordings of late-17th-century violin music from Austria and nearby regions. I don't know whether this collection will be made available in a printed edition. That would certainly help to make it more accessible.

This recording has a very strong documentary character. As I said, it is probably not recommendable to play these discs from start to finish, but rather to savour them in doses. Skærveds performances are an excellent way to get to know this collection. He delivers outstanding performances, and I am also very satisfied with the rather intimate recording, which gives the listener the impression that Skærved is playing just for him/her.

Every lover of the violin music of the baroque period should add this set of discs to his collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Peter Sheppard Skærved

CD Reviews