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"The great violins, volume 4: Girolamo Amati, 1629" - Johann Joseph VILSMAYR (1663 - 1722): Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera

Peter Sheppard Skærved, violin

rec: Jan 29, Feb 21 & July 29, 2020, Aldbury, St John the Baptist
Athene - ATH 23210 (© 2021) (81'51")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Partia No. 1 in A; Partia No. 2 in B flat; Partita No. 3 in c minor; Partia No. 4 in D; Partia No. 5 in g minor; Partia No. 6 in A

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 fourth in the series. The title page has "The Great Violins" and mentions the violin which is used here: an instrument by Girolamo Amati of 1629. Only then the music that is performed on it is mentioned. That is a bit of a shame, because for many lovers of the violin the partitas by Johann Joseph Vilsmaÿr may be completely unknown material. Even the composer is hardly known: in my edition of New Grove he has not even an entry.

Not that there is much to tell: little about him is known. From September 1689 he worked at the Hofkapelle which was connected to the court in Salzburg. There he was a colleague and most likely a pupil of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, the great violinist of Bohemian descent. His salary was regularly increased, which indicates that his service was appreciated. He remained in Salzburg until his death.

Very little music of his pen has been preserved. His extant oeuvre comprises six suites - each of them called partia - for violin solo (1715) and one sonata for violin and basso continuo. The title page of the six suites mentions à Violino Solo Con Basso Belle imitante. For some time the latter addition was interpreted as that Vilsmaÿr had originally added a basso continuo part which had been lost. However, according to later research the reference to a bass regards the fact that these suites are polyphonic and that it is the violin that sometimes adds a bass part.

Double and tripple stopping appear frequently in these works, and Vilsmaÿr prefers the arpeggiation of chords in three and four parts. Another feature is the use of scordatura, which was very much a speciality of the Bohemian-Austrian violin school, of which Biber was one of the most important representatives. All six suites require scordatura, and the way this technique is used, suggests that the suites are constructed as a cycle. As Peter Sheppard Skærved explains in his liner-notes, the suites in the middle are strongly contrasting, due to the tuning of the strings. "The more weight/pressure applied, the brighter the violin will sound and the more restricted variety of timbre is possible. The point of maximum pressure is the 4th 'partia', when all strings but the 'A' have been raised a full tone: this is the violin as its brightest. The point of least pressure is the third 'partia', when the top string (...) is lowered a major third from 'E' to 'C': here the violin is darkest, and most timbral variety is possible."

The sequence of keys also suggests that Vilsmaÿr intended the suites as a cycle: the set opens and closes with a suite in A major. Skærved pays much attention to the Affekte associated with the different keys, with reference to the French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. According to him the key of A major is "joyful and pastoral". Interestingly, the two suites in the middle mentioned above are also strongly contrasting in this respect. The Partia No. 3 is in c minor, which is "obscure and sad", whereas the Partia No. 4 is in D major, which is "joyous and very warlike".

The number of movements varies from eight (No. 5) to ten (Nos. 1, 2 and 6). All of them open with a prelude, which is followed by a series of movements, among them then common dances, such as sarabande, gavotte and gigue. However, all but one of the suites include at least two movements with the title aria. The Partia No. 2 includes a fantasia and closes with a ciaccona with two variations. The Partia No. 3 includes a lesser common dance, entitled canario. It also appears in the Partia No. 4 and in that suite we find a rather odd title: brunada. It has been impossible to identify what kind of dance this may be; Skærved characterises it as something "between a stealthy minuet and a wistful sarabande". This suite ends with a passacaglia. The Partia No. 5 includes a rigodon, another less common dance. The suite ends with a piece called retirada, literally "withdrawal", which has clearly theatrical connotations. The Partia No. 6 is the longest, which is entirely due to the closing movement: an aria variata. It is preceded by a movement called eccho. Lastly, it is notable that every suite includes one or several minuets, a dance that was to become quite fashionable in the next decades.

The fact that Vilsmaÿr is little-known may explain why there are not that many recordings available. Vaughan Jones (First Hand Records, 2015) recorded these suites on an instrument described as 'hybrid', a mixture of baroque and modern elements. The Austrian violinist Gunar Letzbor also recorded them, but that performance I have not heard. Anyway, another recording is most welcome, and one has to hope that these pieces are going to become better-known; they certainly deserve it. Peter Sheppard Skærved delivers excellent and stylish performances, with the help of the magnificent Amati violin. He has thoroughly analysed these suites and describes their features in detail in the booklet. That also contains extensive information about the violin.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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