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Johann Paul von Westhoff: Sonatas for violin and basso continuo, 1694

Les Plaisirs du Parnasse:
David Plantier, violin; Maya Amrein, cello; Shiruko Noiri, archlute; Andrea Marchiol, harpsichord

rec: April 4 - 9, 2004, Frasnes-le-Château, Église
Zig-Zag Territoires - ZZT050201 (69'13")

Sonata I in a minor; Sonata II in a minor; Sonata III in d minor; Sonata IV in d minor; Sonata V in g minor; Sonata VI in g minor

The German violinist and composer Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656-1705) is mostly mentioned only for having influenced Johann Sebastian Bach in his writing of his sonatas and partitas for violin solo. But his compositions hardly get the attention they deserve. This disc brings the very first recording of his six sonatas for violin and basso continuo, which were published in Dresden in 1694.
Very little is known about his early years. He was born in Dresden at a time when the city was one of the cultural centres in Germany and attracted musicians from abroad. One of the main figures in Dresden's musical life was Carlo Farina, one of Italy's most important composers for the violin, whose works were published in Dresden from 1620 on. His music must have had a strong influence on Von Westhoff, as his compositions show.

Von Westhoff wasn't only active as a musician. He was also known for his command of foreign languages, which brought him an appointment as professor of modern languages at the university of Wittenberg in the 1690's. This quality must have been very useful during Von Westhoff's frequent travels through Europe, which were not only of a musical but also a diplomatic nature. It was on one of these travels that he visited Paris, where he played for Louis XIV, who was so much pleased by the sonata Von Westhoff played, that he had to repeat it several times. This sonata, in which Von Westhoff makes use of the 'stile concitato' - known from Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda -, was nicknamed La guerra by the Sun King, and published by the journal Mercure galant. The response was such that a little later the journal published another of Von Westhoff's compositions, a suite for violin solo this time.

This visit took place in 1682, and from the invitation to play at Louis's court one may gather that Von Westhoff was already a famous performer at the time. Together with Biber and Johann Jakob Walther he belonged to the second generation of what is called the 'German violin school', which was founded by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. Although Von Westhoff was influenced by the Italian style, his compositions are also very German, which is demonstrated by the frequent use of polyphony in his sonatas.
The six sonatas for violin and basso continuo demonstrate Von Westhoff's virtuosity as a performer in a most impressive way. They are technically very demanding, not only for the violinist, but also for the players of the basso continuo part, which is often just as virtuosic, for instance in the second movement (presto) of the Sonata II. Although there are similarities with the works of his colleagues Biber and Walther, Von Westhoff's musical idiom is in many ways rather unconventional and personal. For example, in contrast to Biber he never makes use of the scordatura technique (which means that the strings of the violin are tuned to notes appropriate to the key of the piece).

A remarkable feature of this set of sonatas are the frequent and very specific indications regarding tempo and dynamics. A number of movements contain sudden shifts from one tempo to another, for example the opening movements of the Sonata III and Sonata IV. An example of dynamic markings is found in the third movement (adagio) of the Sonata I, which contains a written diminuendo to triple piano at the end. This is immediately followed by the 'forte' entrance of the next allegro.
The basso continuo isn't merely supporting the violin. It sometimes gets involved in a dialogue with the violin (Sonata IV, first movement), whereas in the opening 'grave' of the Sonata III the musical material is equally divided between the violin and the bass part. Sonata VI begins with an aria, which is a passacaglia - here it is the bass part which starts and ends the proceedings.
These sonatas contain several passages for violin solo, without the participation of the basso continuo. They sound like improvisations, and it isn't too far-fetched to assume that we are given here a hint of what Von Westhoff's skills in this department may have been like.

The description of the character of these sonatas could give the impression that they are only about virtuosity. Therefore I should add that there is a lot of expression in these sonatas, in particular in the slow movements. The middle movement of the Sonata VI (aria, with the indication 'largo') is a good example. Also very expressive are the two movements which, according to the fashion of the time, are of a descriptive nature. Here we don't find a depiction of fighting or wounded soldiers (Biber) or an imitations of birds (Walther), but rather imitations of the lute (Sonata II: Imitatione del liuto) and of bells (Sonata III: Imitatione delle Campane). Antonio Vivaldi must have known the latter, as he incorporated it almost unchanged in a violin concerto he dedicated to Johann Georg Pisendel, who was the most important representative of the third generation of the German violin school.

This is not only a very important release from a historical point of view, but it also has great artistic merits. David Plantier is giving splendid performances here. Technically his playing is very impressive, and the players of the basso continuo match him. But what is more important: this recording is musically completely satisfying, as it demonstrates that Von Westhoff was a musical personality of his own, not just a representative of the 'German violin school', let alone the man who influenced Bach. It is a composer whose music deserves to be performed for its own sake. It seems to me this is one of the most important releases in recent times, and definitely one of the strongest candidates for the upcoming list of recordings of the year.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

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