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Johann Georg PISENDEL: Concertos & sonatas

Mayumi Hirasaki, violin
Concerto Köln

rec: Sept 27 - Oct 2, 2021, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
Berlin Classics - 0302808BC (© 2022) (71'55")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

anon: Fanfare; Johann Georg PISENDEL: Concerto for violin and orchestra in D (Jung I,7c); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E flat (Jung I,3); Concerto for violin, strings and bc in B flat; Imitation des Caractères de la Dansea; Sinfonia in B flat (Jung III,1); Sonata for strings and bc in c minor (Jung III,2b); Sonata for violin and bc in D

Marion Moonen, transverse flute; Cordula Breuer, transverse flute, piccoloa; Daniel Lanthier, Valerie Colen, oboe; Stephan Katte, Jörg Schulteß, horn; Makiko Kurabayashi, Marita Schaar, bassoon; Markus Hoffmann, Stephan Sänger, Yves Ytier, Jörg Buschhaus, Frauke Pöhl, Hedwig van der Linde, Wolfgang von Kessinger, violin; Chiharu Abe, violin, taille [tenor viola]a; Antje Sabinski, Cosima Nieschlag, viola, hautecontrea; Aino Hildebrandt, viola, taillea; Jan Kunkel, Alexander Scherf, cello; Adrian Cygan, basse de violon ; Jean-Michel Forest, Raivis Misjuns, double bass; Michael Freimuth, theorbo, guitar; Flóra Fábri, harpsichord; Stefan Gawlick, timpani

Johann Georg Pisendel was a kind of spider in the web in German music life of the first half of the 18th century. He has become known as a brilliant violinist, for many years the leader of the orchestra of the court in Dresden, which he turned into one of the best of his time, and as an avid collector of music, especially in the Italian style. Unfortunately, he is hardly known as a composer, which is largely due to the fact that he did not write that much. Or, rather, not much from his pen has been preserved. We don't know for sure how much he has written. It seems that he was rather self-critical, which may have inspired him to throw some of his compositions away, when they were not up to his own high standards. However, it has also been suggested that some anonymous pieces in the library of the orchestra, which is now preserved in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek - Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, may in fact have been written by Pisendel.

In recent years performers have explored his small oeuvre, and the quality of his compositions is striking. That makes it all the more regrettable that so little from his pen has been preserved. It is to be hoped that more is going to be rediscovered in the near future. The present disc is an impressive testimony of his art, in which obviously the violin plays a central role.

Born in Cadolzburg, Pisendel started his career as a chorister at the court of Ansbach in 1697. There he took violin lessons from Giuseppe Torelli. In 1703 he entered the court orchestra as a violinist. In 1709, on his way to Leipzig to study at the university, he met Bach at Weimar. In 1712 he became a member of the court orchestra at Dresden. When the concert master Jean-Baptist Woulmyer (Volumier) died in 1728 Pisendel took over his duties, and was officially appointed as his successor in 1730.

During his time in Dresden he had plenty opportunities to visit some of the main music centres in Europe. In 1714 he was in France, in 1715 in Berlin and in the years 1716-1717 he stayed in Italy. In Venice he met Vivaldi, from whom he took lessons, but who soon considered Pisendel as his colleague and friend. He also went to Rome and Naples, and in 1718 he was in Vienna.

Pisendel’s fame was not in the first place based on his skills as a violinist, but first and foremost as leader of the court orchestra in Dresden. In this capacity he was particularly admired for his precision and thoroughness. And even as a performer of violin music he concentrated on performing according to the intentions of the composer. He was also influential as teacher of some famous masters of the next generation, such as Johann Joachim Quantz and the Graun brothers.

The court orchestra in Dresden was notable for the presence of some brilliant wind players. In the baroque period an orchestra usually comprised strings and a basso continuo section. Wind instruments were added when they were needed. Especially brass instruments, such as horns and trumpets, were seldom part of the orchestra. That was different in Dresden. It has been suggested that Telemann's inclusion of a concerto for two horns in the third production of his Musique de table may have been inspired by the hornists in the Dresden court orchestra. Their presence may well explain the scoring of the Concerto in D, in which they - and the pairs of oboes and bassoons - play a substantial role. In comparison the Concerto in B flat is more modest. Here the violin is supported by strings and basso continuo, with the violins playing in unison throughout, is treated as a concerto da camera, with one instrument per part. Whereas these two concertos are 'classical baroque' and show the influence of Vivaldi, the Concerto in E flat has 'galant' traits, which suggests that it is of a later date than the previous two concertos.

A step further goes Pisendel in the Sinfonia in B flat, in which the orchestra has classical proportions: the strings are joined by pairs of flutes, oboes, horns and bassoons. The piece points in the direction of the early classical style. Comparable pieces can be found in the oeuvre of Johann Friedrich Fasch, another acquaintance of Pisendel, who regularly sent him his compositions for performance in Dresden.

The Sonata in c minor is not a chamber piece, but may have been intended for liturgical use. One is reminded here of pieces like Vivaldi's Sonata al Santo Sepolcro. It allows for a performance with one instrument per part, but also for a larger line-up, as is the case here. The disc ends with a real chamber work, the Sonata in D for violin and basso continuo. It may have been written during his stay in Italy, probably in 1716. It has the traces of a concerto, and the Concerto in D seems to be a later reworking of this sonata.

The most unusual piece in the programme is the Imitation des Caractères de la Danse. The listener may be reminded of Les caractères de la danse, a fantaisie by the French composer Jean-Fery Rebel. Pisendel's work comprises eight different dances, which are played attacca. The scoring is in five parts and a line-up as was common in France (with haute-contre and taille). One may wonder why Pisendel may have written such a piece. In the late 17th century many aristocrats were highly impressed by the splendour at the French court and wanted their Kapellmeister to compose in the French style. That may have been the case in Dresden as well, but Prince Elector Friedrich August I, known as 'August the Strong', was more in favour of the Italian style. However, there were several French players in his orchestra, among them the above-mentioned Woulmyer and the flautist Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin, who entered his service in 1715. This may explain Pisendel's foray into the French style.

As I wrote, this disc is a testimony of Pisendel's art. The attention that he is given in his capacity as a composer is most welcome. Each work I have heard in recent years is of outstanding quality. His oeuvre is served perfectly by Mayumi Hirasaki and Concerto Köln. Hirasaki is an excellent violinist, who delivers impressive performances, either bold or refined, according to the requirements of the music. Concerto Köln is brilliant in the realisation of the tutti, and the contributions of the wind instruments are especially impressive.

There can be no doubt that Pisendel was an outstanding composer. He was also responsible for the improvement of the quality of the Dresden court orchestra, and for a large corpus of music which are available for today's chamber ensembles and orchestras. If an ensemble looks for a name, what about Pisendel Academy?

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Concerto Köln

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