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Johann Georg PISENDEL (1687 - 1755): "Neue Sonaten" (New Sonatas)


rec: Feb 3 - 7, 2020, Uitwijk (NL), O.L.V.-kerk
Snakewood Editions - SCD202001 (© 2020) (59'13")
Liner-notes: E/ES
Cover & track-list

anon: Sonata in Da; Johann Georg PISENDELA: Sonata in e minor (first version); Sonata in G (attr); Sonata in G (attr); Sonata in a minor (attr)

Javier Lupiáñez, violin; Inés Salinas, cello; Patríciai Vintém, harpsichord (soloa)

Johann Georg Pisendel was one of the most famous violinists in Germany in the first half of the 18th century. He was also a model of the musician in the baroque era: he travelled a lot, listened and learned wherever he was, and integrated what he heard into his own music. Like his friend Bach he was a representative of the 'mixed taste', a mixture of French and Italian elements.

Born in Cadolzburg, Pisendel started his career as a chorister at the court of Ansbach in 1697. There he took violin lessons from Giuseppe Torelli. In 1703 he entered the court orchestra as a violinist. In 1709, on his way to Leipzig to study at the university, he met Bach at Weimar. In 1712 he became a member of the court orchestra at Dresden, one of the best ensembles of Germany. When the concert master Jean-Baptist Woulmyer (Volumier) died in 1728, Pisendel took over his duties, and was officially appointed as his successor in 1730.

During his time in Dresden he had plenty of opportunities to visit some of the main music centres in Europe. In 1714 he was in France, in 1715 in Berlin and in the years 1716-1717 he stayed in Italy. In Venice he met Vivaldi, from whom he took lessons, but who soon considered Pisendel as his colleague and friend. He also went to Rome and Naples, and in 1718 he was in Vienna.

Pisendel's fame was not only based on his skills as a violinist, but also, and probably in the first place, on his role as leader of the court orchestra in Dresden. In this capacity he was particularly admired for his precision and thoroughness. He was also influential as teacher of some famous masters of the next generation, such as Johann Joachim Quantz and the Graun brothers.

In those days a musician of Pisendel's stature was expected to compose as well. And that was what Pisendel did, but not many compositions are known today. There was one particular reason for that: his friend Johann Friedrich Agricola reports that Pisendel was extremely critical of his own works: "He was never satisfied with his own work but always wanted to improve it; indeed, he reworked it more than one time. Now this cautiousness was really somewhat exaggerated. It may also be one reason that so little of his work has become known".

This explains why not that many recordings of his oeuvre are available. However, the small size of his output should be put into perspective. First, as the leader of the orchestra it was his duty to prepare performances, and part of that was the adaptation and arrangement of what he had collected. In some cases he went as far as adding wind parts to concertos for strings. Second, a large number of pieces in his collection, today preserved in the so-called Schrank II at the Saxon State and University Library in Dresden, does not mention the name of the composer, and it seems reasonable to assume that at least some of them are from Pisendel's pen. A thorough examination of these pieces may well lead to a substantial increase in the size of his oeuvre.

The present disc is fruit of such an examination. Four of the five pieces on the programme are first recordings, and the performers believe there are good arguments to attribute them to Pisendel. The disc opens with a piece that has been recorded before, but in a different version. The Sonata in e minor has been preserved in three manuscripts, two of which are identical. These have been used for previous recordings, although those usually included the third movement from the third manuscript, which is omitted in the other two. Obviously, the third manuscript offers the first version of the sonata, and that is the one performed here. In the liner-notes, the differences are discussed, which is especially interesting for those who own a recording of the later version.

The first Sonata in G on this disc, consisting of two largos and two allegros, has come down to us in one manuscript, dated between 1717 and 1720. On the basis of similarities between this sonata and the Concerto for violin in D (JunP I.5), it seems reasonable to assume that the composer is the same. It is a virtuosic piece, in which the violin moves to high positions. There are some passages with double stopping and in the second half of the last movement, the violin has extended figurations over a repeated three-note motif in the bass.

This work is followed by another anonymous piece, the Sonata in D for harpsichord, one of only two keyboard works in Schrank II. That can hardly surprise, as Pisendel focused on music which was suitable for performances of the chapel. One wonders why keyboard pieces were included in the first place. Anyway, it is quite a nice work, and it is suggested that it may be a work from Pisendel's pen as well.

The Sonata in a minor and the other Sonata in G are again virtuosic showpieces. The former has been preserved in a single manuscript and may date from between 1720 and 1730. It is interesting that the 19th-century violin virtuoso Ferdinand David published an edition of this piece as an anonymous work. It is probably because it was anonymous that it did not attract the attention of modern performers. Unfortunately, performers still tend to confine themselves to the works of the great masters. It cannot be appreciated enough that some are ready to look beyond the obvious, which results in recordings, which break new ground, like the one under review here.

The disc closes with the other Sonata in G, which is a specimen of the 'mixed taste', as the last movement has the form of a rondeau. It is preserved in two different autograph manuscripts, dated between 1720 and 1730. One of them is especially interesting, as it includes all sorts of indications which give insight into the compositional process, such as deletions and corrections. And this leads us to the performance, as these indications have inspired the artists to find the most appropriate way of performing these sonatas.

Javier Lupiáñez has taken considerable liberties in his performance of the violin parts, not with the intention to show off, but to give some idea of Pisendel's own performance practice. "We have added florid passagework in slow and fast movements, cadenzas, variations on complete sections, etc., all based on thorough study of Pisendel's performance language. In fact, many of the ornamentations are by Pisendel himself and the rest have been deeply inspired by him." This seems to me the right approach. It makes one feel why his peers were so impressed by Pisendel, and make one understand why someone like Vivaldi considered him his equal. It also shows how important it is to look at the manuscripts and not go by modern printed editions (if available), and why it is so nice that in our time many manuscripts are available online, often even for free.

This is all brilliantly done. These strongly gestural performances, with marked differentiation in tempo and dynamics, are outright exciting. Lupiáñez is an outstanding violinist, and receives excellent support from Inés Salinas and Patrícia Vintém. The latter delivers a fine performance of the harpsichord sonata. I was impressed by Scaramuccia's first recording, "1717 - Memories of a Journey to Italy", and this disc is a worthy sequel. Its importance cannot be overrated.

It is first of all a testimony of Pisendel's art. Wouldn't it be time that an ensemble is called after him? He is well worth the honour.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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