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Pieter HELLENDAAL (1721 - 1799): Violin sonatas

[I] "Violin Sonatas"
Antoinette Lohmann, violin
Furor Musicus
rec: August 2017, Hilversum (NL), Bergkerk
Globe - GLO 5271 (© 2018) (72'23")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Hornpipe; Sonata in ?, op. 1,3; Sonata c minor, op. 2,4; Sonata in a minor, op. 2,5; Sonata in d minor, op. 4,3; Sonata in ?, op. 4,4; Sonata VII[a]; Sonata X

Tonia Strauch, violino piccolo; Hinnerck Feddersen, hurdy-gurdy; María Sánchez Ramírez, cello; Jan Hollestelle, violone; Harjo Neutkens, archlute; Jörn Boysen, harpsichord, organ

[II] "Cambridge Sonatas"
Johannes Pramsohler, violin; Gulrim Choï, cello; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord
rec: Dec 11 - 13, 2018 & July 21, 2019, Kaiserslautern, Studio SWR
Audax - ADX 13720 (© 2020) (68'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/JP
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata I in A; Sonata II in A; Sonata III in d minor; Sonata IV in D; Sonata V in C; Sonata VI in D

Since the last decades of the 17th century, England saw an influx of performing musicians and composers from overseas, mostly from Italy, but also from other countries, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands. From the latter country, two have become well-known: Willem de Fesch and Pieter Hellendaal. The latter was active as organist and violinist and settled in London in 1751.

He was born in Rotterdam in 1721, where his father Johan worked as a pastry baker and later as a candlemaker. In 1732 the family moved to Utrecht. Here Pieter was appointed organist of the Nicolaikerk, despite being just ten years of age. It is not known, who had been his teacher. His father seems not to have been a musician, although he must have had a thorough knowledge of the organ, as he was asked to do some repair work at the organ of the Nicolaikerk. In 1737 Pieter resigned as organist, as the family moved to Amsterdam. Here he may have become acquainted with Pietro Antonio Locatelli, the famous Italian violin virtuoso. It is not known who taught him the violin, but he must have been accomplished at the instrument, as - thanks to the support of Mattheus Lestevenon, secretary of Amsterdam - he was allowed to go to Padua, to study with the famous Giuseppe Tartini, somewhere between 1737 and 1743.

Tartini did not take that many students, as he wanted to be able to pay enough attention to anyone of them. The fact that he accepted Hellendaal as one of his students, is further evidence that Pieter's skills must have been far above average. Nine sonatas from his pen have been preserved in collections of pieces connected to Tartini, and these are identical with sonatas from the two sets which he published as his Op. 1 and Op. 2 in Amsterdam, shortly after his return. There he started to perform as a violinist in public.

In January 1749 Hellendaal enrolled at Leiden University. There he once again performed as a violinist and from time to time replaced the organist of the Pieterskerk. However, as apparently he did not succeed in obtaining a fixed position, which would allow him to support his family, he decided to move to London, where he arrived in late 1751. Between 1752 and 1754 Hellendaal's name is regularly mentioned in concert announcements in the newspapers. He came into contact with Handel, and played a violin solo between the two acts of Acis and Galatea in a performance in 1754. In 1758 Hellendaal published a set of six concerti grossi as his Op. 3, which show the influence of Handel. Again, it seems that he failed to find a position as organist or as violinist in an orchestra.

For a short while he acted as organist at St Margaret's Church of King's Lynn in Norfolk, as successor to Charles Burney, who thought the salary was too low. Hellendaal may have had the same considerations when he left his post after only a short time. In November 1762 he was appointed organist of the Pembroke Hall Chapel in Cambridge. There he remained for the rest of his life, working as a violinist, teacher and music publisher, and selling musical instruments. In 1763 he played the violin in a performance of Handel's Messiah. In 1777 he was appointed organist of the Peterhouse Chapel. He published a set of violin sonatas (Op. 4) and a collection of eight cello sonatas (Op. 5). Further printed editions include sonatas for keyboard, violin and cello and a rondo for violin and basso continuo. Hellendaal also composed some vocal music, both sacred (Psalms and Hymns) and secular (canons and glees).

Recently two discs were released with sonatas from Hellendaal's oeuvre. Antoinette Lohmann and the ensemble Furor Musicus recorded a cross-section of his output for violin and basso continuo. The fact that all but one of these sonatas appear on disc here for the first time bears witness to the almost complete neglect of Hellendaal's oeuvre. This is hard to understand, considering the character and quality of the sonatas Lohmann presents here. As she points out in her extensive and highly informative liner-notes, the sonatas are challenging, especially those from the Opp. 3 and 4. However, even in the very first piece in the programme, the Sonata III from his Op. 1, Hellendaal applies the technique of double stopping.

The disc closes with two sonatas from a collection of eleven that has been preserved in manuscript in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It is not known when they were written. Hellendaal's printed sonatas may be technically quite demanding, but here he goes some steps further, for instance in the even more frequent use of double stopping and the exploration of the highest positions at the violin. Some sonatas even include written out cadenzas, which are not unlike the Capricci in Locatelli's L'Arte del Violino. Johannes Pramsohler devotes his entire recording to this collection. I don't know, whether he was acquainted with Lohmann's disc when selecting the sonatas for his project, but it is at least a matter of good fortune that there are no duplications: he confines himself to the first six sonatas, whereas Lohmann recorded the Sonatas VII(a) and X. (The addition (a) is added as two sonatas bear the number VII; the Sonata X is in fact the eleventh.)

Lohmann points out that the Cambridge sonatas pose quite some problems. "[The] sonatas are not all completed: alterations, deletions, improvements and alternatives have been scrawled into almost every sonata. These modifications were most probably added by Hellendaal; however, not all the alterations struck us as being improvements, while not all deletions are provided with a clearly recognisable alternative or connect logically with the following passage". In the Sonata VII(a), it was decided to play some deleted passages, and in some cases later modifications were included in the repeats. The second movement of the Sonata X is extremely long. "[Many] bars had been deleted without any alternatives being added. It proved to be impossible to simply leave out the deleted material, as the remaining bars no longer connected to each other musically". For that reason this movement was entirely omitted.

Hellendaal's sonatas are different in texture, and that goes for the published sonatas as well as those in the Cambridge manuscript. The sonatas from the Opp. 1, 2 and 4, which Lohmann selected, are all in three movements, in the order slow - fast - fast. This is also the way the sonatas of his teacher Tartini are structured. As far as the Cambridge sonatas are concerned, most of them have the same order of movements, except the The Sonata II in A and the Sonata VI in D, which are in four movements, in the order slow - fast - slow - fast, whereas the Sonata X originally consisted of five or even six movements (the last movement includes a separately written middle section and an alternativo).

Antoinette Lohmann is a brilliant violinist who feels like a fish in water in this repertoire. She takes quite some liberties, about which one may have different opinions. The last movement of the Sonata III from the Op. 4 bears the title 'Pastorale', and she emphasizes its character through the participation of a hurdy-gurdy. In an interview with a Dutch newspaper, Lohmann explains that she selected those sonatas which have some folkloristic or 'wild' features. She refers to the fact that, while living in Amsterdam, Hellendaal often played in pubs. She assumes that the unusual things he requires in some of his sonatas, are inspired by his wish to show off. I am not going to challenge that assumption, but it seems to me that in any case these sonatas should be played on violin alone.

The same 'Pastorale' also closes the Sonata III in d minor from the Cambridge set. Pramsohler does not need any additional instrument, and I prefer his performance which does full justice to this piece's character. However, Pramsohler also takes some liberties. The opening slow movements of three sonatas (II, IV and VI) "were for me models for improvised embellishments in 'arbitrary manner', so that I left hardly a single note untouched", he writes in his liner-notes. The Sonatas III and IV include the long and virtuosic cadenzas I referred to above. In the Sonata V, Hellendaal goes to the highest positions in the second movement, whereas in the third and last movement, he also explores the lower end of the violin's tessitura.

These pieces may be technically brilliant and a perfect vehicle for a performer to demonstrate his skills, but they are also impressive from a musical point of view. That makes these productions all the more worthwhile.

Overall I like both performances, although on balance I prefer Pramsohler's approach. I wonder how he would treat the sonatas which Lohmann has selected. I like the latter's performances of the two Cambridge sonatas more than the way she plays the printed sonatas, as I have argued. However, I wonder whether the basso continuo section should be so large: two string basses and a plucked instrument, plus keyboard. The participation of an organ is questionable, and in the Sonata IV from Op. 4 it is too dominant, and takes an almost obbligato role. I also would have preferred a more intimate acoustic. That is different in Pramsohler's recording. A cello and a harpsichord suffice to realise the basso continuo. The acoustic is just right.

Fortunately, the lover of music for baroque violin does not have to choose. If he purchases both discs, his music collection will be substantially enriched.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Antoinette Lohmann & Furor Musicus
Johannes Pramsohler
Gulrim Choï

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