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CD reviews

"A German Bouquet"

Trio Settecento

rec: June 2008, Evanson, Ill., Music Institute of Chicago (Nichols Hall)
Cedille Records - CDR 90000 114 (© 2009) (78'30")

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Fugue in g minor (BWV 1026); Sonata in e minor (BWV 1023); Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Sonata in C, op. 1,5 (BuxWV 256) [4]; Philipp Heinrich ERLEBACH (1657-1714): Sonata III in A [5]; Johann Philipp KRIEGER (1649-1725): Sonata in d minor, op. 2,2 [3]; Georg MUFFAT (1653-1704): Sonata in D; Johann Georg PISENDEL (1687-1755): Sonata in D; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1620-1680): Sonata in d minor [2]; Johann SCHOP (?-1667): Nobelman [1]

(Sources: [1] 't Uitnement Kabinet, 1646; [2] Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Duodarum selectarum sonatarum, 1659; [3] Johann Philipp Krieger, 12 Suonate, op. 2, 1693; [4] Dietrich Buxtehude, VII Suonate, op. 1, 1694; [5] Philipp Heinrich Erlebach, VI Sonate à Violino & Viola da Gamba col suo Basso Continuo, 1694

Rachel Barton Pine, violin; John Mark Rozendaal, viola da gamba; David Schrader, harpsichord, organ

One of the features of the seconda prattica which came in vogue in the early 17th century was the violin's rise to prominence. A whole generation of brilliant players of and composers for the violin - often these were identical - made their mark in Italian music. Some of them moved north, and in particular in Germany their virtuosic style was received with enthusiasm. In the second half of the 17th century Germany - and more generally the German-speaking world - developed into a centre of violin playing and composing for the violin. 'A German bouquet' presents some of the finest compositions written by German and Austrian violinists. The most famous composer who is not represented is Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. But as his music is frequently recorded it was a wise decision to leave him out of this programme.

Not that the works recorded by the Trio Settecento are unknown. I am not sure about the sonata by Schmelzer, but all the other pieces are already available on disc. I would have preferred that the artists had chosen pieces which had not yet been recorded, and I am sure there is plenty to find. But the programme makes for an interesting survey of what was written in the German-speaking world in the last decades of the 17th century. It also shows how the German violin school culminated in the works for violin by Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporary Johann Georg Pisendel.

The programme starts with Johann Schop, who became the principal violinist in Hamburg in 1621. He had a high reputation, which was reflected by his high salary. A number of his pieces are found in a Dutch collection of music for amateurs, like Nobelman, which is played here. Once he was the pupil of the English gambist William Brade and that is reflected in this work which makes use of the English division technique.

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer played at the imperial court in Vienna, and here he was appointed Kapellmeister in 1679, the only non-Italian at this post between the early 17th and the early 19th century. He died of the plague the very next year. His Sonata in d minor is one of a number of pieces on this disc which is scored for violin, viola da gamba and bc. The sonata is dominated by frequent imitation between the two instruments.

The sonatas by Johann Philipp Krieger, Dietrich Buxtehude and Philipp Heinrich Erlebach have the same scoring. Krieger's sonata ends with a long aria d'inventione. Erlebach acted as Kapellmeister at the court of Count Albert Anton von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt in Thuringia from 1681 until his death. In his time the court developed into one of Thuringia's main music centres. The Sonata III in A played here is from a collection of six which were published in 1694. In some sonatas Erlebach makes use of the scordatura technique, and that is also the case in the third sonata. It contains a brilliant ciaconne and ends with an expressive adagio. The whole collection has been recorded by Rodolfo Richter in 2001.

Georg Muffat was one of the most important representatives of the goûts réunis, which merged Italian, French and German elements. He only left one violin sonata in which adagios and allegros alternate in a way which is quite old-fashioned for the time. With the sonata by Johann Georg Pisendel we are in a very different world. He was a pupil of Vivaldi for some time, but his style is profoundly German, with its use of counterpoint. But in particular the last movement bears the traces of Vivaldi's exuberant and brilliant style as towards the end there is a long and virtuosic passage like an operatic coloratura.

In comparison Bach's compositions for violin and bc are a bit more modest, but technically challenging nevertheless. He was well acquainted with Pisendel, but he also was a very good violinist himself. With his Sonata in e minor this journey through the world of German violin playing ends.

When I received this disc the ensemble was an unknown quantity to me. All pieces of this programme are of the highest quality, and the players impress with their impeccable technique. In particular the sonata by Pisendel is given a brilliant performance by Rachel Barton Pine.

But it is only here and there that I was really satisfied with the interpretation. Having heard many recordings of this repertoire over the years I am not particularly surprised as the flaws are often the same. There are too many notes without dynamic shades, and too often all notes get the same treatment. There is little attention to the hierarchy of the notes, and therefore little differentation between the good and the bad notes. That makes this recording static, and I was often a little bored. This repertoire is exciting and full of contrasts, but too little of that comes out in these interpretations. I referred to Rodolfo Richter's recording of Erlebach's sonatas, and he makes more of what these sonatas contain. But even he doesn't explore the contrasts and expression to the full.

As indicated earlier, most pieces on this disc have been recorded before, and often in better performances. This recording gives some idea of the quality of German violin music of the late 17th century but doesn't explore it to the full.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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