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"Bach & Entourage - Violin Sonatas from Bach's Circle"

Johannes Pramsohler, violin; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichorda

rec: May 5 - 8, 2014, Kaiserslautern, Studio SWR
Audax Records - ADX13703 (© 2015) (65'11")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon (?Johann Sebastian BACH, 1685-1750): Sonata in A (BWV Anh II, 153)a; Johann Sebastian BACH: Fugue in g minor (BWV 1026)a; Sonata in c minor (BWV 1024)a (attr); Johann Gottlieb GRAUN (1703-1771): Sonata in G (Graun WV Av,XVII,35)a; Johann Ludwig KREBS (1713-1780): Sonata in c minor (KWV 311)a; Johann Georg PISENDEL (1687-1755): Sonata in a minor

The six sonatas and partitas for violin solo by Johann Sebastian Bach are considered the pinnacle of what has ever been written for this instrument. They are a great technical challenge for any violinist and one is inclined to think that they give us some insight into the composer's own skills as a violinist. However, it is generally assumed that these pieces were written for someone else. Several names are mentioned: Johann Georg Pisendel, Jean Baptiste Volumier and Joseph Spieß. It is assumed that the latter was the player for whom Bach composed his violin concertos. But there is no firm evidence that any of these three was the inspiration for Bach's sonatas and partitas. However, Pisendel's Sonata in a minor for violin without accompaniment could have inspired Bach to compose these works, and almost certainly the Sei Partite à violino senza basso accompagnato by Johann Paul von Westhoff.

It may not be known for whom the sonatas and partitas were intended, there is every reason to believe that Bach himself was a highly skilled violinist. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel stated that his father played the violin "purely and penetratingly". In fact, the violin was Bach's first instrument. His father, Johann Ambrosius, was an excellent violinist and when he died Johann Sebastian inherited his violin. Between 1703, when he was appointed violinist at the court in Weimar, until his move to Leipzig, the violin played a central role in his career. Even when he worked in Leipzig he continued to play the violin, for instance when he directed the Collegium Musicum.

The present disc puts Bach, the player of and composer for the violin, into an interesting historical perspective. The title refers to composers whom Bach knew personally and who were all virtuosic violinists. They bear witness to the high standard of violin playing in Germany which had its roots in the new concertante style which developed in Italy around 1600 and part of which was instrumental virtuosity. The Italian Carlo Farina worked for several years at the court in Dresden and contributed to the emergence of the German violin school. Dresden would continue to play a key role in the development of violin playing as some of the greatest virtuosos were connected to it, such as Johann Jakob Walther and Johann Paul von Westhoff. Johann Georg Pisendel was also a product of the German violin school. His Sonata in a minor probably dates from around 1716. It is a most peculiar piece in three movements. The first is untitled in the manuscript; it has much in common with the keyboard preludes of in particular the North-German organ school, written in the stylus phantasticus, and is characterised by great rhythmic freedom, giving the impression of being improvised. The second movement is an allegro, and the last two movements a giga with variations. This reflects the French influence in Pisendel's oeuvre, as the variations are comparable with the double in French keyboard suites.

From about the same time dates Bach's Fugue in g minor, the oldest piece of chamber music from his pen that has been preserved in manuscript. It also is one of the first compositions which shows the traces of the Vivaldian ritornello technique. There is considerable doubt about the authenticity of the Sonata in c minor (BWV 1024) which has been preserved in manuscript in Dresden and Wiesentheid. It has been suggested that Bach - if he is the composer - may have written it for Pisendel, but some assume that the latter may have written the sonata himself. The opening adagio has an improvisational character. This piece opens the programme and is followed by the anonymous Sonata in A which has been included in the appendix of the Schmieder catalogue. It is in five movements: the opening andante is lyrical, the third movement (adagio) is characterised by frequent multistopping and the sonata ends with a virtuosic fugue. The work has been handed down to us in a copy by Johann Peter Kellner who mentions Bach as the composer. Whether this is correct or not, there is little doubt that it is from Bach's circle, possibly from the pen of one of his pupils.

Johann Ludwig Krebs was one of Bach's favourite pupils and is almost exclusively known as a composer of organ music. However, he also wrote vocal works and a respectible number of instrumental compositions. Among them are two sets of sonatas for keyboard and transverse flute or violin and two sonatas for violin and bc; one of them is the Sonata in c minor which is recorded here for the first time. Krebs was not a violinist himself but this didn't prevent him from writing a fully idiomatic and technically challenging work. In contrast Johann Gottlieb Graun was universally recognized as one of the great violinists of his time. He was a pupil of Pisendel and of Giuseppe Tartini, the greatest Italian violinist of the generation after Vivaldi. In 1732 he joined the chapel of the then Crown Prince Frederick (the Great), but before he was Konzertmeister in Merseburg. Here he was the teacher of Bach's eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann. The Sonata in G is another first recording; it is a brilliant and technically demanding piece in four movements. In particular the two fast movements show the skills of the composer.

Johannes Pramsohler is probably the best interpreter for this kind of stuff. His technique is impressive but - more importantly - he has the right attitude to this repertoire and emphasizes the strongly rhetorical character of these sonatas. His performance is differentiated in regard to articulation, phrasing, dynamics and choice of tempo. These are very gestural interpretations. Philippe Grisvard is his equal partner at the harpsichord, supporting him in the engaging manner which is also a feature of Pramsohler's playing.

This is a highly important and musically captivating disc which gives us further insight into the musical world in which Bach lived and worked.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Johannes Pramsohler
Philippe Grisvard

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