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Johann Georg PISENDEL (1687-1755): "Violin Sonatas"

Anton Steck, violin; Christian Rieger, harpsichord

rec: April 6, 12 - 13, 2003, Cologne, DLF (Studio)
CPO - 999 982-2 (61'11")

Sonata for violin & bc in c minor; Sonata for violin & bc in D; Sonata for violin & bc in e minor; Sonata for violin & bc in g minor; Sonata for violin solo in a minor

Johann Georg Pisendel was one of the most famous violinists in Germany in the first half of the 18th century. He was also a model of the musician in the baroque era: he travelled a lot, listened and learned wherever he was, and integrated what he heard into his own music. Like his friend Bach he was a representative of the ‘mixed taste’, a mixture of French and Italian elements.

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, one of the best ensembles of Germany. 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 of 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, like Johann Joachim Quantz and the Graun brothers.

In those days a musician of Pisendel’s stature was expected to compose as well. And that was what Pisendel did. He took composition lessons from Johann David Heinichen, but these ended prematurely because of a conflict, about which no details are known. Not many compositions are known today, but that wasn’t very different in his own time. His friend Johann Friedrich Agricola reports that Pisendel was extremely critical of his own works: "He was never satisfied with his own work but always wanted to improve it; indeed, he reworked it more than one time. Now this cautiousness was really somewhat exaggerated. It may also be one reason that so little of his work has become known".
Some orchestral works are known and the sonatas on this disc. The authenticity of three of them (those in D, in c minor and in g minor) has only recently been established.

The Sonata in D, which opens this disc, was probably composed during his stay in Venice. It is one of Pisendel's most demanding pieces, and carries the traces of a solo concerto. Interestingly the musical material was later indeed used for a concerto for violin and orchestra. Quantz praised Pisendel for his playing of adagio movements. Although the second (slow) movement of this sonata is labelled ‘larghetto’, from this movement one can easily imagine that Pisendel’s playing of such a piece must have been very moving. The third movement contains some very virtuosic solo passages.

The second item is the Sonata in a minor, one of the relatively small number of pieces for violin solo of that time. One is tempted to compare it with the sonatas and partitas by Bach, and there are clear similarities - Pisendel seems to have been influenced by Bach. But the strong polyphonic character of Bach's works is missing here.

The Sonata in e minor is an example of a piece which Pisendel reworked: it does exist in two versions. The first was in four movements in the style of the Italian sonata da chiesa and was probably written in Venice. Here the second version has been recorded which is in three movements. But the movement from the first version which is missing from the second has been included. This seems to me a strange decision: Pisendel apparently reworked the first version into a three-movement form in order to bring it into line with the new sonata style which the Graun brothers had developed in Berlin: slow - fast - fast. The inclusion of the 'arioso' from the first version conflicts with these intentions. The last movement stands out for its harmonic boldness.

The fourth piece is the Sonata in c minor which very much sounds like a composition of Johann Sebastian Bach. In fact, this sonata is the one included in Schmieder's catalogue as BWV 1024; it is still played regularly as a work by Bach. It is in many ways a strongly 'German' work and is composed in a 'learned' style. Especially the first movement is very 'Bachian' with its melodic and harmonic peculiarities. The second movement is very virtuosic, and in the last movement is dominated by the Affekt - so characteristic of the German baroque in particular.

The last piece is the Sonata in g minor, which seems to have been written under the influence of the Roman school. In 1717 Pisendel went to Rome to visit Antonio Montanari, who was a famous violinist and orchestral director, and who was a pupil of Corelli.

This is a very interesting and musically fascinating recording. The music presented here shows that Pisendel - as Agricola suggested - really didn't have any reason to doubt the quality of his compositions. This is just excellent stuff. And Anton Steck totally believes in it, as his interpretation shows. No matter how virtuosic some pieces or passages in them are, he masters them with ease. His differentation of the notes and the shaping of the phrases is brilliant. This is a very eloquent and passionate plea for Pisendel's music. And Christian Rieger supports him with his driving continuo playing.

I shall return to this disc frequently, as it is a fine demonstration of what is best in the music of the German baroque era.

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

Relevant links:
Johann Georg Pisendel

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