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CD reviews

Music for violin solo

[I] "Toccata & Fugue - Music for solo violin by Bach, Telemann, Tartini"
Enrico Onofri, violin; Setsuko Sugita, violina
rec: June 22 - 25, 2009, Crema, Cascina Giardino
Passacaille - 1004 (© 2014) (64'34")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Toccata and fugue in d minor (BWV 565) (ed. E. Onofri); Giovanni BASSANO (1561-1617): Ricercata III [1]; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1703): Passacaglia in g minor (C 105) [2]; Giuseppe TARTINI (1692-1770): Sonata in g minor, op. 1,10 'Didone abbandonata' (Brainard g10) [6]; Sonata in A, op. 1,13 'Pastorale' (Brainard A16) [6]; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Fantasia No. 1 in B flat (TWV 40,14) [7]; Fantasia No. 9 in b minor (TWV 40,22) [7]; Fantasia No. 12 in a minor (TWV 40,25) [7]; Intrada, nebst burlesquer Suite for 2 violins in d 'Gulliver Suite' (TWV 40,108)a [5]

[II] "à violino solo"
Thibault Noally, violin
rec: June 2013, Franc-Warêt (B), Église Saint-Rémi
Aparté - AP068 (© 2013) (79'19")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Partita No. 2 in d minor (BWV 1004); Thomas BALTZAR (c1631-1663): Allemande in g minor; Praeludium in c minor; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1703): Passacaglia in g minor (C 105) [2]; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Fantasia No. 2 in g minor (TWV 40,15) [7]; Fantasia No. 4 in D (TWV 40,17) [7]; Fantasia No. 10 in D (TWV 40,23) [7]; Fantasia No. 12 in a minor (TWV 40,25) [7]; Johann Joseph VILSMAYR (1663-1722): Partita V in g minor [4]; Johann Paul VON WESTHOFF (1656-1705): Partia V in d minor [3]

Sources: [1] Giovanni Bassano, Ricercate, passaggi et cadentie per potersi esercitar nel diminuir terminatamente con ogni sorte d'istrumento, 1585; [2] Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Sonaten über die Mysterien des Rosenkranzes & Passacaglia, 1674?; [3] Johann Paul von Westhoff, [6 Partitas], 1694; [4] Johann Joseph Vilsmaÿr, Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera, 1715; [5] Georg Philipp Telemann, Der getreue Music-Meister, 1728-29; [6] Giuseppe Tartini, Sonate e una pastorale, op. 1, 1734; [7] Georg Philipp Telemann, XII Fantasie per il violino senza basso, 1735

The literature for unaccompanied violin is rather limited. The sonatas and partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach take first position, immediately followed by the Passacaglia by Biber and - if we include the 19th century - the Capricci by Paganini. The two discs to be reviewed here give the opportunity to get acquainted with other music: a selection from the twelve fantasias by Telemann, sonatas by Tartini and suites by Vilsmayr and Westhoff.

It seems likely that most music for unaccompanied violin was written for professionals. That certainly goes for Bach's sonatas and partitas which he finished in 1720 when he worked in Cöthen but which he started to work on in Weimar. It is not known for whom they were written; they were never published. That is different with the fantasias by Telemann which were printed in Hamburg in 1735. However, considering that many pieces include multiple stopping they may have been beyond the grasp of most amateurs.

The least-known of the composers represented on these discs is Johann Joseph Vilsmaÿr who hasn't even an entry in New Grove. Not much is known about him. It is likely that he was a pupil of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. For most of his life he worked at the court in Salzburg as violinist and as chamberlain to Francisco Antonio, the Archbishop of Salzburg. To him Vilsmaÿr dedicated his six partitas which were printed in Salzburg in 1715. This is the only collection of music from his pen which has come down to us, alongside a sonata for violin and bc. The title page includes the words "con basso bellè imitante" which has been interpreted as referring to a (lost) basso continuo part. But, as Vaughan Jones writes in the liner-notes to his recording of these partitas (First Hand Records, 2015), "[this] erroneous appraisal has (...) been found wanting as the polyphonic style of violin writing often implies a bass line in the lower regions of the instrument." The six partitas vary in the number and character of movements. The Partita V in g minor comprises eight movements. The first is a prelude with the addition Harpeggio which refers to the arpeggios dominating this movement. Then follow a gavotte, a sarabande, a rigaudon, a gigue, a bourrée and a movement, called Retirada with the tempo indication allegro. All the movements are in binary form; every section is repeated.

Johann Paul von Westhoff is a little better known, especially because his partitas for violin solo are often considered one of the sources of inspiration for Bach's sonatas and partitas. He was born in Dresden and became a member of the Dresden Hofkapelle, like his father; he remained here until 1697. Two years later he entered the service of Duke Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar; he stayed there until his death in 1705. Here he must have met Bach who from March to September 1703 worked as a chamber musician at the court; in 1708 he would return in the capacity of chamber musician and organist. Westhoff travelled across Europe as a performing violinist; in 1682 he played at Versailles and the next year the Mercure Galant printed a suite for violin solo. The set from which the Partia V in d minor is taken came from the press in 1697. It is notable that this set seems to have attracted little attention. In his Musicalisches Lexicon of 1732 Johann Gottfried Walther included a biography of Westhoff but doesn't mention these partitas. Like Vilsmaÿr Westhoff frequently makes use of multiple stopping; his partitas include many four-part chords. These six partitas are all in four movements: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue.

Telemann's fantasias may have been written under the influence of Bach's sonatas and partitas; the two composers were good friends, after all, and interested in each other's works. They were written at the time that Telemann also composed series of twelve fantasias for the transverse flute and the viola da gamba. In composing chamber music he mostly had the skilled amateur in mind; especially among the bourgeoisie there was a growing demand for music which was technically challenging but not too complicated. Whether these fantasias were within their reach is hard to say; we certainly should not underestimate the skills of amateurs of those days. Like Bach's works for solo violin they include counterpoint but on a more modest scale. Some movements have the form of a fugue but that is usually not fully worked out. In the liner-notes to his recording of unaccompanied sonatas by Tartini (Agogique, 2015) David Plantier states: "According to the aesthetics of his time Tartini forgoes the counterpoint while sublimating its melodic side. Polyphony, discreet but present, keeps with the exclusive function of support to the song. He focuses on the substance of music itself, its capacity to move, its power to evoke, as only the greatest geniuses have been able to do." This could refer to Telemann as well; he was a more modern composer and his music shows that he largely agreed with Johann Mattheson who stated that melody instead of counterpoint was the foundation of music. The fantasias comprise three or four movements; there is no fixed order or clear pattern. Most movements have tempo indications but some are in fact dances. The Fantasia No. 9 in b minor which Enrico Onofri has recorded opens with a siciliana. In 1728 Telemann launched a periodical, called Der getreue Music-Meister. It included pieces of all kinds and in all sorts of scorings: opera arias, harpsichord pieces, canons and solo sonatas. If music-lovers wanted to have complete sonatas they had to subscribe as he split multi-movement pieces across various issues. In 1726 Jonathan Swift published his novel Gulliver's Travels. It is the basis of the Intrada, nebst burlesquer Suite in D. It is generally known as Gulliver Suite, but there is no reference to the novel in the manuscript. The connection becomes all too obvious in the titles of the various movements, though. After an intrada we hear a Lilliputsche Chaconne which must be the shortest chaconne in history: just 27 seconds. It is largely notated in hemidemisemiquavers (1/64) and quarter demisemiquavers (1/128), which suits the tiny size of the Lilliputians. The plump gigue which follows it effectively portrays the giants of Brobdingnag.

Tartini has already been mentioned. He composed 26 sonatas for unaccompanied violin which he called piccole sonate. In a letter Tartini explained that he added a bassetto "out of convention" but "I myself play them without bass and such is my true intention". Plantier writes that the bass lines show that they were written "without particular care". This has inspired Onofri to select some sonatas from the set of Sonate e una pastorale which was published as Tartini's op. 1 in 1734 in Amsterdam and omit the basso continuo part. "Most certainly almost all of Tartini's sonatas for violin and bass, if transcribed well, can function in a distinguished manner without the accompaniment." He admits that we don't know if Tartini also played that way the sonatas which were printed with a basso continuo. "Performing one of these works for solo violin is in part an arbitrary choice". It is certainly an interesting approach and if it is done well it could offer a different perspective to these sonatas. The Sonata No. 10 in g minor has the nickname Didone abbandonata which - according to New Grove - dates from the 19th century. That doesn't mean that this sonata was not inspired by this figure in the libretto by Pietro Metastasio. According to Onofrio "[every] movement (..) directly refers to lines taken from Metastasio's text"; these are printed in the booklet and Onofrio reads them at the start of every movement. It is an established fact that Tartini was often inspired by literature while composing.

Obviously Bach can't be omitted altogether. Thibault Noally chose the most famous from the set of sonatas and partitas, the Partita No. 2 in d minor (BWV 1004) whuch includes the famous ciaccona. Onofri turns to another famous work, the Toccata and fugue in d minor (BWV 565), probably Bach's best-known organ work. There have always been doubts about its authenticity but scholars have not been able to come up with a more likely candidate for its authorship. It has also been questioned whether this work was originally conceived for organ. Some have suggested that it is in fact a transcription of a work for violin solo. Several reconstructions have been made, usually in a minor. Onofri has made his own reconstruction in the same key as the organ version. It is something one has to get used to; the long notes, for instance, are played here as a series of arpeggios. Whether this is indeed how the original piece was conceived is impossible to say; however, its inclusion is interesting and though-provoking.

Both artists have included the passacaglia by Biber which is the last piece in the collection with his so-called Mystery Sonatas. Apart from its texture - variations on a descending motif of four notes (G, F, E flat, D), it is also the first line of a contemporary hymn to the Guardian angel, Einen Engel Gott mir geben.

Noally plays two pieces by Thomas Baltzar. He was of German birth; in 1655 he travelled to England, where he stayed until his death. When he played in England a contemporary observed that he "plaid on that single instrument a full Consort". That refers to his chordal playing, which was unknown in England at the time. His Praeludium is an example of his virtuosic style, and includes double stopping.

Onofri and Noally are both technically accomplished players and both deliver good performances. As the repertoire is partly complementary lovers of this kind of music may want to have them both. Especially for Vilsmaÿr there seems no alternative (the above-mentioned Vaughan Jones plays a modern instrument with a baroque bow) and Onofri is likely the first to play two of Tartini's sonatas with basso continuo without accompaniment. Baltzar is also badly represented on disc. But there are some meaningful differences between the two artists. Onofri's interpretation is the most differentiated, in articulation, dynamic shading and a pronounced contrast between good and bad notes. Noally is more restraint in that regard; sometimes I found his playing a bit flat, for instance in the opening allemande from Bach's partita. A not insignificant difference between the two is the acoustic: Noally's recording took place in a church and that has had a negative effect on the outcome. There is too much reverberation and this is has a flattening effect on things like articulation and dynamics. This is chamber music and requires a more intimate venue; Onofri's recording in just right in this regard.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Enrico Onofri
Thibault Noally

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