musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Music for violin from Germany and Austria

[I] "Spicy - 'Exotic' Music for Violin"
Les Passions de l'Ame
Dir: Meret Lüthi
rec: April 21 - 24, 2013, Bern, Yehudi Menuhin Forum
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88883748742 (© 2013) (62'12")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/Jap
Cover & track-list
Score Biber, Harmonia artificioso-ariosa;
Score Biber, Sonata

Andreas Anton SCHMELZER (1653-1701) (attr): Sonata 'Die Türkenschlacht bei Wien 1683' for violin and bc in a minor; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Partia III for 2 violins and bc in A (C 64) [1]; Partia VI for 2 violins and bc in D (C 67) [1]; Sonata violino solo representativa for violin and bc in A (C 146); Johann Joseph FUX (1660-1741): Partita a 3 for two violins and bc in C 'Turcaria' (K 331)a; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1623-1680): Die Fechtschule, Balletto a 4 for two violins, viola and bc in Ga

Sources: [1] Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa: diversi mode accordata, 1696

Meret Lüthi, Sabine Stoffer, violin; Matthias Jäggi, viola; Felix Knecht, cello; Love Persson, violone; Julian Behr, theorbo, guitar; Margit Übellacker, dulcimer; Ieva Saliete, harpsichord, organ; Peter Kuhnsch, tar, landsknechtstrommel, tamburello, riq, darabuka, cymbala

[II] "Walther, Westhoff, Bach"
Uta Pape, violin; Olaf Reimers, cello; Klaus Mader, theorbo; Wolf-Eckart Dietrich, harpsichord
rec: July 11 - 15, 2012, Wuppertal, Immanuelskirche
Ars Produktion - ARS 38 126 (© 2013) (61'54")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list
Score Walther;
Score von Westhoff, Sei Partite;
Score JS Bach

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Partita No. 2 for violin in d minor (BWV 1004); Johann Jacob WALTHER (1650-1717): Aria in forma di Sonatina No. 14 for violin and bc in g minor [2]; Sonata no. 2 for violin and bc in A [2]; Johann Paul VON WESTHOFF (1656-1705): Partia V for violin in d minor [4]; Sonata No. 2 for violin and bc No. 2 in a minor [3]

Sources: [2] Johann Jacob Walther, Hortulus chelicus uni violino duabus, tribus et quatuor subinde chordis simul sonantibus harmonice modulanti, 1688; Johann Paul von Westhoff, [3] Sonate a Violino solo con basso continuo, 1694; [4] Sei Partite à violino senza basso accompagnato, 1696

With these two discs we get a pretty good survey of the development of the German-Austrian violin school in the second half of the 17th century and its culimination in the works for violin solo by Johann Sebastian Bach. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, who made a career in Salzburg, was considered one of the greatest violinist of his time. Johann Jacob Walther and Johann Paul von Westhoff, both from Dresden, were seen as his equals. There are various similarities between them, but also clear differences.

The disc of Les Passions de l'Ame focuses on one specific feature in the music of the German-Austrian violin school: programmatic and pictorial music. The disc starts with Die Fechtschule, one of the most famous pieces by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. He was from Austria and strictly speaking doesn't belong to the German-Austrian violin school. There are no connections between him and, for instance, Biber. It is also not known who taught him the violin, but it could have been an Italian master. After all, in his early days Italians were the dominant force in the playing of and the composing for the violin. They transported their art across the Alps by looking for employment in Austria and Germany. Some of Schmelzer's works are connected to the theatre and he also wrote pieces for performances during the Carnivals season. Maybe his depiction of a fencing school is written for such occasions.

Biber also composed various pieces of a pictorial character. The Sonata violino solo representativa is one of the best-known examples. He uses various techniques to depict the nightingale, the cuckoo, the cock and the cat. With Johann Joseph Fux we are in a different atmosphere: he was no violin virtuoso, but was educated as an organist. Since 1715 he was Kapellmeister at the imperial court in Vienna. However, his oeuvre includes a large number of trio sonatas for two violins and bc. The Partita a 3, with the nickname Turcaria, has been found in a copy in Kremsmünster Abbey in Upper-Austria. If it is indeed from Fux's pen - which is not certain - it is very likely an early work, written under the impression of the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683. It has been suggested that this piece could have been intended as a kind of caricature of what was thought to be typically Turkish. Maybe it was also intended for theatrical use.

The events of 1683 had a huge impact: never before the Turks had been so close to the heart of European and Christian civilization. Johann Caspar Kerll experienced the threat of the Turks personally and composed his Missa In fletu solatium obsidionis Viennensis. The Sonata Die Türkenschlacht bei Wien 1683 (The battle against the Turks at Vienna) is another product of this event. It is an arrangement of the Sonata X 'Die Kreuzigung' (The Crucifixion) from the Mystery Sonatas by Biber. It was transposed to another key and at the end of the work a new movement was added, describing the "victory of the Christians". This arrangement is attributed to Andreas Anton Schmelzer, the eldest son of Johann Heinrich, but there is no certainty that this arrangement is indeed from his pen.

Biber's virtuosity comes clearly to the fore in the collection Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa, comprising seven partitas for two violins and basso continuo. It also reflects another important feature of the German-Austrian violin school: the use of the scordatura technique, an alternative tuning for the open strings. Biber used this technique frequently: only one of the seven partitas requires a 'conventional' tuning. It also marks a clear difference within this violin school: Johann Jacob Walther vehemently rejected the use of it.

He is the starting point of the disc of Uta Pape. Walther could have learnt the violin from a Polish violinist. In her notes on the history of violin playing in Germany Greta Haenen refers to the existence of a Polish violin school which so far has hardly been examined. He also was in Italy for several years where he must have picked up elements of the Italian violin school. From 1674 to 1681 he was at the service of the court in Dresden; he then moved to Mainz where he remained until his death. Whereas he rejected the scordatura technique he was an avid composer of pieces of a pictorial character. Those may be considered a way to show off, but Ms Haenen states that these were also - and perhaps in the first place - used as exercises to train specific playing techniques. Uta Pape has chosen other pieces from Walther's oeuvre, both from one of his two collections of violin pieces. The Sonata No. 2 in A begins with a preludio which comprises various short sections of a contrasting character. This shows the influence of the stylus phantasticus which had its roots in Italy but was also a feature of the North-German organ school. Ms Haenen refers in her notes to the highly developed violin playing in Lübeck. Within what can be called the German-Austrian violin school one can distinguish between various regional schools, such as a North-German and Central-German school with some characteristics of their own. The Aria in forma di Sonatina No. 14 in g minor includes some variations on a basso ostinato, a very popular compositional form in the 17th century.

Johann Paul von Westhoff was born in Dresden, but his family was from Lübeck - again a link to North-Germany. He worked for several years at the court in Dresden alongside Walther. He had the opportunity to travel across Europe as a violin virtuoso and performed before Louis XIV in Versailles. Two of his compositions were printed in the French paper Mercure galant. In 1699 he entered the service of the court in Weimar. Von Westhoff was one of the greatest virtuosos of his time. He is the first to write music for violin using the form of the keyboard suite as it was probably introduced in Germany by Froberger. His Sei Partite à violino senza basso accompagnato are all in four movements: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. They reflect a further feature of the German-Austrian violin school: multiple stopping. This technique was used by Walther and even more frequently by Von Westhoff. The finale from his Sonata No. 2 in a minor is completely dominated by it.

The same technique is frequently used by Johann Sebastian Bach in his sonatas and partitas for violin solo. Bach was certainly acquainted with the music by Walther and Von Westhoff. The latter he definitely knew as he was in Weimar for a short period of time during 1703. There can be little doubt that he knew also Von Westhoff's solo violin suites.

Uta Pape delivers impressive performances. Her playing is technically immaculate and she has no problems with the high demands of this repertoire. Her interpretation is convincing in every respect. She is well aware of the rhetorical character of this music and makes it speak. The contrasts are perfectly worked out and the tempi well chosen. The ciaccona from Bach's Partita No. 2 is really outstanding. With 12'19" the tempo is considerably faster than in other recordings; I have recordings where this piece takes more than three minutes longer. I had never the feeling that it is too fast, though. Whereas I am often disappointing about the lack of differentiation between the notes and in dynamics, there is no reason for complaints here. I have greatly enjoyed this disc and I hope that Ms Pape will continue to explore this repertoire.

The playing of Les Passions de l'Ame is very good as well, and that includes Meret Lüthi in the solo pieces. I am less enthusiastic about the interpretations, though. It is true that a part of the programme consists of music of a theatrical character, and it would be totally wrong to play this in a restrained manner. However, I think that the performers exaggerate: the playing is sometimes not very subtle and they have fallen for the temptation to lay it on thick. Either they seem to be afraid that the listener might miss something, or they think they can't communicate what the composer wanted to achieve, or they even mistrust the power of the music to achieve what the composer had in mind. Both in Schmelzer's Die Fechtschule and in Fux's Partita Turcaria they use percussion to emphasize the effects. This was certainly not prescribed by Schmelzer and the many recordings of this piece show that it is not needed. I have not seen the score of Fux's partita and I haven't heard a performance without percussion, but I highly doubt that the composer expected performers to add this to the ensemble. The point is that it was a challenge for the composers to depict whatever they liked just with violins. Suggestion is an important element in pictorial music. The addition of instruments which the composer didn't prescribe takes away that effect. This damages the music and violates the intentions of the composers. The use of traditional instruments of the Near East - as in Fux - is also anachronistic. Moreover, I have my doubts about the plausibility of the frequent participation of the dulcimer.

It is really a shame that another potentially great disc has been attacked by percussionitis. This epidemic continues to make victims, it seems.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Uta Pape
Les Passions de l'Ame

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