musica Dei donum
"OVNI Baroque - Bach/Biber, Pieces for Violin & Bass"
Emmanuelle Dauvin, violin, organ
rec: Oct 15 - 17, 2020, Guignicourt, Église Saint-Pierre
Hitasura - HSP 007 (© 2021) (60'45")
Cover, track-list & booklet
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750):
Partita for violin No. 1 in b minor (BWV 1002);
Sonata for violin and bc in e minor (BWV 1023) ([praeludium]; adagio ma non tanto);
Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER (1644-1704):
Mystery Sonata No. 1 in d minor 'Die Verkündigung' (C 90);
Mystery Sonata No. 3 in b minor 'Christi Geburt' (C 92);
Mystery Sonata No. 10 in g minor 'Die Kreuzigung' (C 99);
Sonata VI for violin and bc in c minor (1681) (C 143) 
 Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Sonatae, Violino solo, 1681
Music history holds fascinating stories. Some speak to the imagination since we don't know the details. Take this story about Nicolaus Bruhns (1665-1697), a representative of what is known as the North German organ school. He was equally versed at the organ, the violin and the viola da gamba. In the former capacity he was a pupil of Dieterich Buxtehude. The theorist and composer Johann Mattheson wrote about him: "Sometimes he took his violin up to the organ loft and played with such skill that it sounded like two, three or more instruments at once. Thus he would realize the upper parts on the violin while his feet played an appropriate bass on the pedals". One would like to know when he did so, what he played and how.
The fact that Mattheson mentions this, suggests that it was not a very common practice. That may be the reason that in modern times nobody has followed in his footsteps. Until Emmanuelle Dauvin, that is. When she heard about Bruhns's practice and it was suggested to her to do the same, she investigated the possibilities of playing violin and organ at the same time. She started with Biber's Passacaglia and then added the first of his Mystery Sonatas. Next she looked at other pieces by Biber and works by Johann Sebastian Bach. Mastering them was hard enough, and playing the bass part at the organ made it even more difficult. In the booklet she describes the whole process which resulted in the recording of this disc, which brings the two composers together.
Not all the pieces include a bass part. Bach's Partita No. 1 for violin solo is the exception. However, as Bach's works for solo violin are well-known and often recorded, the main interest of this disc is in the items with basso continuo. Some of the questions I mentioned above are relevant here. The first is: what exactly did Bruhns play? We don't know, but it seems likely that he played pieces of his own pen. Unfortunately nothing of that kind has come down to us. Bruhns was not the only composer of the baroque era who mastered both the violin and the organ. Bach was another one, and it makes Dauvin stating that "I cannot imagine that he would not have had fun playing like this". Maybe, but there is no information whatsoever about his playing both instruments at the same time. From that perspective it seems right that Dauvin only included two movements from the Sonata BWV 1023.
Biber is a different matter. It seems unlikely that he played keyboard instruments. In this case the performance practice demonstrated here raises another issue. If a violinist wants to play the bass part himself, he can only do so on the pedals. Only larger organs have a pedalboard, and this means that Biber's sonatas have to be played in a relatively large space. However, there is little doubt that Biber's instrumental music was intended for domestic performance, and that goes in particular for the Mystery Sonatas.
A second question is: how did Bruhns play the basso continuo? Mattheson speaks about "feet" - in the plural. This suggests that Bruhns played the bass as written down by the composer (himself) with his left foot and added a second part with his right foot, in order to create harmony. That was what basso continuo parts were made for. The performances here are different: Emmanuelle Dauvin only plays the bass notes as written, but does not add a second part.
These remarks are just meant to show that things are even more complicated than what Dauvin is doing here. Let me be clear: I have nothing but admiration for her willingness to put this fascinating story about Bruhns into practice. I also admire her playing and have enjoyed what I have heard here. In the Biber sonatas she can compete with the best, and her performance of Bach's Partita will not become my favourite one, but it is certainly very good.
On balance, though, I can't see much of a future for this performance practice, for the simple reason that there seems little historical justification for it, and that in most cases the music requires a more elaborate realisation of the basso continuo part. That said, any lover of the baroque violin should investigate this disc. The repertoire may be well-known, but because the way it is performed, this production is an interesting contribution to the never-ending research into the performance practice of the baroque era.
Johan van Veen (© 2022)