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CD reviews

Italian and German music for violin

[I] "Pure"
Jonas Zschenderlein, violina; Alexander von Heißen, harpsichordb
rec: Feb 28 - March 1, 2016, Koblenz Ehrenbreitstein, Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19075863432 (© 2018) (67'18")
Liner-notes: E/D/JP
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Partita for violin in d minor (BWV 1004) (giga)a; Sonata for harpsichord and violin in G (BWV 1019)ab; Toccata for harpsichord in D (BWV 912)b; Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713): Sonata for violin and bc in g minor, op. 5,5ab; Antonio Maria MONTANARI (1676-1737): Sonata for violin and bc in d minorab; Johann Paul VON WESTHOFF (1656-1705): Sonata for violin and bc No. 2 in a minorab

[II] Johann Paul VON WESTHOFF (1656 - 1705): "Suites for solo violin"
Plamena Nikitassova, violin
rec: Sept 2019, Mülheim (D), Martinskirche
Ricercar - RIC 412 (© 2020) (56'59")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Suite I in a minor; Suite II in A; Suite III in B flat; Suite IV in C; Suite V in d minor; Suite pour le violon sans basse continue in A

Johann Paul von Westhoff, Sonate a Violino Solo con Basso Continuo, 1694; [Suites for violin solo], 1696


The violin takes a key role in music history. It was already played in the renaissance period; its role at that time has been particularly highlighted in performances and recordings by Baptiste Romain. In the early 17th century, when in Italy the seconda pratica was born, the violin became one of the main instruments. Many pieces were written for the violin or with violin parts, in which the specific features of the instrument were explored. The technical and stylistic developments disseminated across Europe, and in particular in Germany it found a fertile ground. It resulted in a violin school, of which Johann Jakob Walther and later Johann Paul von Westhoff and Johann Georg Pisendel were among the main representatives. Therefore it makes much sense to bring together Italian and German music for violin in one programme, as Jonas Zschenderlein and Alexander von Heißen have done, and to include a disc entirely devoted to Von Westhoff in this review.

Zschenderlein and Von Heißen open with one of the sonatas for violin and basso continuo which Arcangelo Corelli published as his Op. 5. This set has an almost iconic status: it has been recorded many times, and sonatas from the collection are regularly performed at the concert stage. It was already a hit shortly after it was published. In England it played a major role in the birth of a true Corellimania and, more generally, a huge interest in Italian music among professionals and amateurs alike. These sonatas were also the subject of many arrangements and adaptations, for instance for the recorder. However, they make the strongest impression when played at the violin, as the performance by these two artists shows.

Until fairly recently, Antonio Maria Montanari was a largely unknown quantity. In 2015, Audax released a disc with five concertos from his Op. 1, dating from around 1730. They were performed by the Ensemble Diderot, with Johannes Pramsohler at the violin. This disc revealed that Montanari is an excellent composer, and it is nice that Zschenderlein and Von Heißen decided to include one of his sonatas. It makes much sense that the Sonata in d minor follows Corelli's sonata, as Montanari was strongly influenced by him. A contemporary claimed that he was even Corelli's pupil, but there is no documentary evidence of that. Even so, the connection is strong enough to justify the inclusion of one movement from this same sonata in a recording of Musica Antiqua Roma on its disc devoted to Benjamin-Joseph Steens"Corelli's Legacy". That is the most notable part of this sonata as it is called giga senza basso, and needs to be played without the support of the harpsichord.

That leads to a performance of the giga from the Partita in d minor for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is one of a set of three partitas and three sonatas for violin without accompaniment which may have been written for Johann Georg Pisendel, the famous violinist who was the leader of the court chapel in Dresden, and whom Bach knew very well. There can be little doubt that Bach was inspired by Johann Paul von Westhoff, who for a while was his colleague in Weimar. Von Westhoff composed a set of six partitas for unaccompanied violin himself; we turn to them later. Zschenderlein and Von Heißen selected one of his six sonatas for violin and basso continuo. Notable are the frequent use of double stopping, for instance in the second movement (presto), and the imitation of the lute in the third movement (Imitazione del liuto). Such imitations were part of the German violin school of the 17th century; one of its main proponents was Johann Jakob Walther, who claimed that he was able to imitate "a violin choir, the tremulant organ, a guitar, bagpipes, two drums and timpani, a hurdy-gurdy and a sweet harp" on his violin.

Bach is generally considered a rather conservative composer, especially because of his preference for counterpoint in a time that saw the emergence of melody as the foundation of music. However, his six sonatas for keyboard and violin were groundbreaking. Bach was one of the first who set the harpsichord free from its role as a basso continuo instrument in ensemble pieces. Here the two instruments are treated on equal footing. The obbligato part for harpsichord may give us some idea about the way Bach used to work out basso continuo parts. Here we hear the sixth sonata from the set, which has an usual texture in that it is in five movements, with an allegro for harpsichord solo as its central movement. The harpsichord is also on its own in the Toccata in D, one of a set of seven, written under the influence of the North German organ school. It has strongly improvisatory traces, as was common in this genre.

The two artists are members of the ensemble 4 Times Baroque, whose disc "Caught in Italian Virtuosity" I reviewed a couple of years ago. I was not overly enethusiastic, as I felt that they went over the top in their apt goal of emphasizing the contrasts in the repertoire they had selected. They are not entirely free of that here either, witness their performance of the finale from Von Westhoff's Sonata in a minor. However, on the whole I have enjoyed this recording. Zschenderlein is an excellent violinist, who is well aware of the rhetorical character of this repertoire. His playing is colourful and dynamically differentiated. Von Heißen is an imaginative performer of the basso continuo parts, and does full justice to the contrasts and improvisational traits of Bach's Toccata. I am not entirely satisfied - as so often - with the balance between the violin and the harpsichord in Bach's Sonata in G. The violin is a little too dominant in comparison to the harpsichord.

Unfortunately, the performers decided to repeat the Imitazione del liuto from Von Westhoff's sonata with an accompaninent of a (modern?) guitar, played by Zacharias Zschenderlein, also the recording engineer. His contribution includes influences from jazz, and I think that should be avoided any time. But it happens at the very end of this disc, so you can easily turn off your equipment.

The second disc is devoted to the first set of pieces for unaccompanied violin published in Germany. Von Westhoff was born in Dresden and became a member of the Dresden Hofkapelle, like his father. He remained at the service of the court until 1697. He made a number of journeys through Europe, and gave public performances. He visited the French court at Versailles in 1682 and played his Sonata La Guerra for Louis XIV, who liked it so much that Von Westhoff had to repeat it several times. The sonata was published in the magazine Mercure galant, which also published a suite for violin solo. In addition to his musical activities, Von Westhoff taught French and Italian, and held a professorship in languages at Wittenberg University for some years. In 1699 he entered the service of Duke Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, and he stayed there until his death in 1705.

These Partitas were printed in Dresden in 1696. Considering their historical importance and their quality, it is quite surprising that in Von Westhoff's own time these partitas were hardly taken note of. Johann Gottfried Walther, for instance, doesn't make mention of them in his biographical article on Von Westhoff in his Musicalisches Lexicon of 1732. And even in modern times it was not until the 1970s that these works were thoroughly examined, which resulted in the publication of a modern edition.

Although these pieces have been recorded before, for instance by Gunar Letzbor, this new recording by Plamena Nikitassova is most welcome. Her interpretation has two interesting features. The first is that she holds the violin against her chest rather than between shoulder and chin. Peter Wollny, in his liner-notes, suggests that this was the way the violin was held in the 17th century. That is doubtful: according to Eva Saladin, in her explanatory remarks during a concert at the 2019 Festival Early Music Utrecht, several ways of holding the violin coexisted. From that perspective, the way Plamena Nikitassova holds her violin here is just one of the options. The second feature is the pitch: Nikitassova plays at a pitch of a=466 Hz, which was the Chorton in central Germany in the 17th century, and therefore the pitch of most sacred music. It would be interesting to know why this pitch was chosen, considering that these pieces were not intended for liturgical use and the violin does not have to adapt to any other instrument. Unfortunately, this aspect of performance practice is not discussed in the booklet.

The sixth suite from this set has come down to us with an incomplete gigue. Therefore Nikitassova decided to omit the entire suite. I find that rather disappointing. Fortunately, Letzbor did include it. As a kind of compensation, Nikitassova plays the above-mentioned Suite in A, published by the Mercure galant, instead. Like the suites from the 1696 set, it comprises the four usual movements: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, but it is different in that it opens with a prelude.

Undoubtedly, this is a highly interesting production. Von Westhoff's suites deserve to be better known anyway, but here they are given an excellent performance by Plamena Nikitasssova. The specific features of her interpretation makes this disc all the more attractive and desirable for anyone, who has a liking of music for the baroque violin.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Alexander von Heißen
Plamena Nikitassova
Jonas Zschenderlein

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