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"The Seventeenth-Century Violin"

Jaap Schröder, violin

rec: August 3 - 4 & 9 - 12, 1999, Skálholtskirkja (Iceland)
Smekkleysa - SMC 5 (© 2005) (66'52")
Liner-notes: E/F/Icelandic

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Partita in d minor (after the Partita for transverse flute in a minor, BWV 1013); Toccata in a minor (after the Toccata for organ in d minor, BWV 565); Thomas BALTZER (c1631-1663): Allemande [3]; 2 Preludes [3]; Sarabande [3]; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Passacaglia [1]; Nicola MATTEIS the elder (?-c1695): Fantasia [2]; Passaggio rotto [1]; Nicola MATTEIS the younger (c1677-1737): Fantasia, con discretione; Johann Paul VON WESTHOFF (1656-1705): Suite pour le violon seul sans basse in A

Sources: [1] Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Rosenkrantz-Sonaten, 1674?; [2] Nicola Matteis the elder, Arie diverse per il violino, 1676; [3] John Playford (ed), The Division Violin, 1685

The name of this label means "bad taste" in English. That is not very promising, is it? But it isn't as bad as one might think. This disc is one of the flowers in their catalogue. Jaap Schröder (b.1925) is one of the pioneers of the baroque violin. Alongside the likes of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brüggen and Anner Bijlsma he has attempted to restore the performance practice of the baroque era, using instruments of the period. To that end violins of the 17th and 18th centuries which had been adapted to the aesthetic ideals of the 19th century were restored to their original condition. That is also the case with the violin Schröder uses here which was built by the Dutch violin maker Willem van der Syde around 1700.

Rather than play pieces for violin and basso continuo Schröder has selected compositions for violin without accompaniment. In the baroque era most music for a single instrument was for keyboard (harpsichord and organ) or for plucked instrument (lute and guitar). Pieces for melody instruments, like recorder, flute, violin or cello, usually had a bass part. There is a considerable repertoire for solo instruments without accompaniment, though. Most of it is for viola da gamba: in particular in the 17th century many pieces were written for viola da gamba solo, especially in France and England. In the 18th century Bach wrote his solo works for violin and cello, Telemann a number of fantasias for flute and for violin and Carl Friedrich Abel composed music for viola da gamba.

The literature for violin solo seems limited. There are the six partitas and sonatas by Bach and then the Passacaglia by Biber. Johann Paul von Westhoff wrote six partitas for violin solo which strongly influenced Bach's solo works. But over the years more music has been discovered. Telemann's fantasias have been recorded, and composers like Thomas Baltzer and Nicola Matteis have been rescued from oblivion. Schröder begins his recital with three pieces by father and son Matteis. Nicola the elder was born in Naples; the year of his birth is not known nor are there any facts about his years in his native country. It seems he arrived in London around 1670, but the first mention dates from 1674 when he is noted as performing the violin in public. Listeners were flabbergasted by his virtuosity; they had never heard anything like that before. Socially he had difficulty adapting to his environment as he was considered arrogant and rather full of himself. His apparently odd character is reflected in some of the pieces he published in his Arie diverse per il violino in 1676. Schröder has chosen two of the more common pieces. The Passaggio rotto consists - as the name suggests - of virtuosic passagework in the style of the passaggi which were so popular in Italy around 1600. The Fantasia contains some double-stopping, without any doubt one of the things with which he astounded his audiences. If you would like to hear the more bizarre side of Matteis, turn to the disc by Amandine Beyer and Gli Incogniti (ZigZag Territoires, 2009). Another Fantasia is played, this time by Matteis' son, Nicola the younger. He composed little for the violin: around 1700 he moved to Vienna, and here he mainly wrote ballet music.

Thomas Baltzer (or Baltzar) was another immigrant; he was born in Lübeck in northern Germany from a family of musicians. 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. Little of his music has survived; most of his pieces for solo violin are included in The Division Violin, published by John Playford in 1685. The four pieces played here all contain passages with double stopping.

Biber was one of the main representatives of the German-Austrian school of violin playing which was the finest in Europe. He was a great virtuoso, and composed a considerable number of pieces for violin and bc. One of the most famous collections - recorded numerous times - are the 15 so-called Mystery Sonatas or Rosenkranz-Sonaten. The collection closes with Biber's only piece for violin solo, a Passacaglia. The addition of this piece to the sequence of 15 sonatas connected to the mysteries (or meditations) on the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary has led to some speculation. In print it is preceded by a picture of a guardian angel leading a child. This could mean that the piece is referring to the feast of the Guardian Angel to which the rosary devotions were often associated.

From the same school of violin playing come the next composers featured on this disc. Johann Paul von Westhoff was born in Dresden and became a member of the Hofkapelle. He also travelled in Europe and gave performances as a violin virtuoso. He played at the court for Louis XIV who was very impressed. Two pieces by Von Westhoff were printed in the newspaper Mercure Galant, one of which is the Suite in A. It has the characteristic form of a suite, opening with an overture, followed by allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue I & II. In 1699 he entered the service of Duke Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, and he stayed there until his death in 1705. It is very likely he met Johann Sebastian Bach there, and it is generally assumed that Von Westhoff inspired Bach to compose his sonatas and partitas for solo violin. None of those are included here; Schröder's interpretation has been released by Naxos (1984/85). Here he has chosen his own transcription of Bach's only piece for transverse flute without accompaniment, the Partita in a minor (BWV 1013), transposed here to d minor. This is not the first time it has been transcribed for other instruments. In 1975 Frans Brüggen recorded Bach's chamber music for flute with some colleagues, and various movements of this piece were performed at the viola, the cello piccolo, the recorder, the harpsichord and the violin. On the latter it works quite well.

The same goes for the last work in the programme, Bach's most famous organ work, the Toccata (and fugue) in d minor (BWV 565). There is some doubt among scholars whether this was really written by Bach. But if it isn't by Bach, then who could have written a piece like this? There seem to be more reasons to doubt whether it was originally conceived as an organ piece. Some assume it was first written for violin solo, and Schröder is one of those who have attempted to reconstruct the original form. It has been published by Faber & Faber (London, 1984) and has been performed by some of Schröder's colleagues. It is nice to hear his own performance which is very compelling. If you have the well-known organ version in mind you might sometimes wonder whether you are hearing the same piece. It just shows how much has been added to the original, assuming it was indeed first intended for the violin. What we get here is the skeleton, so to speak, of the organ piece. The figurations seem very natural for the violin, and bring this piece quite close to Bach's sonatas and partitas.

The rest of the programme is of the same calibre. The music is first-rate and the performances show a thorough understanding of the style and idiom. Now and then I had the impression the technique was less than perfect, which is hardly surprising considering that Schröder made this recording at the age of 73. But those moments are few and far between. This is a most impressive recital of some fascinating music of quite diverse character. The record company doesn't have such a bad taste after all.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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