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Johann GRAF (1688 - 1750): Sonatas for violin and basso continuo

Anne Schumann, violin; Klaus Voigt, viola da spalla; Sebastian Knebel, harpsichord

rec: July 7 - 10, 2010, Dresden-Pillnitz, Weinbergkirche
Genuin - GEN 21738 (© 2011) (67'40")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Parts Op. 2

Sonata IV in g minor, op. 1,4; Sonata V in a minor, op. 1,5; Sonata II in c minor, op. 2,2; Sonata VI in G, op. 2,6; Sonata IV in A, op. 3,4; Sonata V in g minor, op. 3,5

Sources: VI Sonate à Violino solo mit Accompagnirung des Basses, nebst einer aufrichtigen Erläuterung derer darinnen befindlichen Applicaturen, op. 1, 1718; VI Sonate à Violino solo mit Accompagnirung des Basses, op. 2, n.d.; VI Sonate à Violino solo mit Accompagnirung des Basses, nebst einer aufrichtigen Erläuterung derer darinnen befindlichen Applicaturen, op. 3, 1737

It is quite possible that once in a while you have heard a piece by a composer with the name Graf. Undoubtedly, that was a composition by either Christian Ernst (1723-1804), who for most of his life worked in The Hague, or by his brother Friedrich Hartmann (1727-1795), who worked in Hamburg and Augsburg. They were the sons of Johann Graf, to whom the disc under review here is devoted. It may well be the first time any of his compositions appear on disc. ArkivMusic does not even know him, nor does Muziekweb, the classical music library in the Netherlands. This is quite remarkable: his oeuvre is rather small, but of high quality, as the sonatas on this disc show. One would expect violinists of our time, who are specialising in baroque music, to be keen to perform his sonatas, which are technically quite challenging and are also interesting from a stylistic point of view.

Graf was born in Nuremberg and was recognized as a brilliant violinist at an early age. His first post was that of violinist in the Deutschhauskirche. According to Johann Gottfried Walther, whose Musicalisches Lexikon includes most of the information on Graf, he worked for six years in Hungary as an instructor and master of the oboes of a wind band, which means that he was able to play the oboe as well. After his return he entered the service of the court of the Prince-Elector of Mainz in Bamberg. That was in 1718, and that same year he published his first compositions, a set of six sonatas for violin and basso continuo, as his Op. 1. According to New Grove, these sonatas are lost, but apparently that information is wrong, as the first two sonatas in the programme are taken from this set. Maybe they have been rediscovered since my edition of New Grove was published, but that is not discussed in the booklet. The collection was dedicated to Count Rudolf Franz Erwein of Schönborn in Wiesentheid, an avid amateur on the cello, for whom Giovanni Benedetto Platti composed many of his works.

Four years later Graf entered the service of the court of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt as Konzertmeister. Although Conrad Heinrich Lyra had succeeded Philipp Heinrich Erlebach (who had died in 1714) as Kapellmeister, it was Graf who wrote the music for the liturgy and for secular occasions. Nothing of his vocal output has been preserved. In 1727 Graf published a second set of violin sonatas (Op. 2), followed in 1737 by six further sonatas as his Op. 3. Both were dedicated to his employer, Prince Friedrich Anton, and his wife. It is notable that Graf was in close contact to Georg Philipp Telemann. At Graf's suggestion, works by Telemann were acquired for the court. In 1737 Telemann was responsible for the publication of Graf's Op. 3, which he put on the plates. In 1739 Graf was appointed Kapellmeister. He held this position until his death; he was succeeded by Georg Gebel.

What Graf's sonatas have in commin is that they are technically challenging. There is quite a lot of double stopping, and the fourth sonata from the Op. 3 is even full of it. The sonatas Op. 1 are typical products of the Italian style of the baroque era. They are modelled after Corelli's sonate da chiesa, but Graf takes some liberties with regard to the number and construction of movements. The Sonata IV in g minor comprises five movements: slow, fast, fast, slow, fast. However, the second movement ends with a slow section. The Sonata V in a minor has four movements; here the third is a sequence of fast and slow sections. This set has also a pedagogical goal, as it includes an exaplanation of the fingering indications in the violin part.

The second set shows some adaptations to the new fashions in musican aesthetics. There was a general tendency to more naturalness and the expression of human emotions; Giuseppe Tartini was one of the most prominent exponents of this. Here it comes especially to the fore in the slow movements. It is notable that the two sonatas included here have a siciliano as their third movement. These sonatas also show an emancipation of the basso continuo, which develops into a real partner of the violin.

The third set moves forward in this drection; here the violin and the basso continuo are thematically mostly independent. As Manfred Fechner, in his liner-notes, puts it: "The thematic idiom typical of the Baroque has largely disappeared, bur - formed from small motivic particles - clearly structured and self-contained melodic sections or phrases appear." The most remarkable sonata of the two from the Op. 3 is the fourth in A. Its opening movement includes repeated figures which remind me of those in Haydn's Symphony No. 83, nicknamed 'The hen'. The next movement also comprises many passages with repeated notes, but then mostly with double stopping. The same technique is used in the two ensuing movements. This music is quite astonishing. This set again includes explanations of the fingering indications.

The six sonatas on this disc are really excellent stuff. It is a mystery to me why they have been neglected to date. One can only be grateful to Anne Schumann, that she has brought them to our attention. I sincerely hope she will have the opportunity to record more sonatas from Graf's pen. She delivers here excellent and exciting performances. Although she does play in British orchestras, her individual style of playing is very German, for instance in a clear articulation and marked dynamic accents. Interestingly, Klaus Voigt plays not a 'conventional' baroque cello, but rather a viola da spalla, a cello held across the player's chest, which was probably more common than the cello as we know it. Sebastian Knebel plays a copy of a Mietke harpsichord, whose strong sound is excellently suited to this music.

Those who have a special interest in baroque violin repertoire should investigate this disc. I am sure that they will greatly enjoy both the music and the performances.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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Anne Schumann

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