One of the features of the new style which was born in Italy around 1600 was instrumental virtuosity. Composers started to write music for solo instruments, which explored their technical possibilities. One of the main instruments at the time was the violin. Through Italian composers travelling north the stylistic features of Italian violin music were disseminated across Europe. One of them was Carlo Farina, who worked for several years at the court in Dresden. Another centre of violin playing in the Italian manner was Vienna, where the imperial court attracted almost exclusively musicians and composers from Italy. As a result the German-speaking part of Europe - Germany, Austria and Bohemia - developed into a centre of violin playing. The present disc includes music by composers from the German-Austrian violin school.
One of the most brilliant violinists of his time was Johann Jakob Walther. He was from Witterda, near Erfurt. He started his career as a valet to a Polish gentleman, who taught him to play the violin. For several years he stayed in Florence, where he played in the orchestra of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. After his return he entered the service of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden as first chamber violinist. By 1681 he had moved to the electoral court in Mainz where he stayed until his death. He published two collections of instrumental music: Scherzi da violino solo con il basso continuo (1676) and Hortulus chelicus uni violino duabus, tribus et quatuor (1688). From the latter collection the Sonata XVII in d minor is taken, which has the curious addition “Gara di due Violini in Un”. This means literally “a contest of two violins in one”. It is notated in the form of a trio sonata, with three staves, but the whole piece has to be played on one violin. As Anselm Hartinger states in his liner-notes: “The player not only needs to possess utmost concentration and responsiveness - she must also first imitate herself and then split into multiple personalities, as Walter writes entire sections for ‘Viol. I Solo’ and ‘Viol. Secondo Solo’ to complete the fiction of a trio arrangement with concertante solo outbreaks”. It is typical of the technical experiments made by representatives of the German-Austrian violin school.
Walther was a strong advocate of imitation. In his oeuvre one finds many pieces in which the violin imitates animals or other musical instruments. However, he rejected the use of the technique of scordatura, which was especially popular in Austria and Bohemia. One of the main composers who made use of this technique was Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, for instance in the fifteen sonatas known as Mystery sonatas or, in German, Rosenkranz-Sonaten. Only in two pieces from this collection the violin has to be played in the common tuning: the opening sonata and the passacaglia for violin solo. The latter piece is played here. It is preceded by a preludio; the liner-notes don’t explain where this piece comes from, which is especially disappointing as it has never been recorded before.
With Georg Muffat we have a representative of the ‘mixed taste’, which was to become dominant in the early 18th century and manifests itself in, for instance, the oeuvre of Bach, Telemann and Couperin. The Sonata in D is his only work for violin and bc. It is preserved in the archive of the Bishop of Olomouc in Kromeriz. It was written in 1677, as the manuscript shows, which means that it predates the sonatas of Corelli. Like the other pieces on this disc it is an example of the stylus phantasticus: it comprises five movements of contrasting tempo and character - adagio, allegro, adagio, allegro, adagio - but these are not formally separated and follow each other attacca. It is notable that Muffat completely avoids double stopping. That can probably be explained by the fact that he himself was not a violinist.
Neither was Philipp Friedrich Böddecker: he was educated as an organist and bassoonist. From 1686 until his death he worked at the court in Stuttgart. The Sonata in d minor is his only violin piece, and considering that he was not a violinist it is notable that he does make use of double stopping. Like Muffat’s sonata it is not formally divided into movements. In the tradition of the stylus phantasticus it is rather a sequence of eight sections of contrasting character and tempo.
Two names in the programme are unknown quantities; neither of them has an entry in New Grove. The Sonata Violino Solo by Heinrich Lizkau is preserved in the University Library of Wroclaw and dates from 1657. It has a strongly improvisatory character. There are several instances where the basso continuo starts a theme, which is then adopted by the violin, but after a short while it moves away from it again. It includes passages with double stopping and tremuli effects.
Like the sonata by Muffat the pieces from the pen of Heinrich Döbel are part of the archive of the Bishop of Olomouc in Kromeriz. The booklet does not give any information about him. On the internet I was able to read some pages from a book by Charles Everett Brewer, which includes some information about him. He was from Danzig (Gdansk) and received his first education from his grandfather, the organist Paul Siefert. Having occupied several positions in Poland, he travelled across Europe, visiting Prague, Vienna, Paris and London, and then returned to Gdansk. It is only in Kromeriz that compositions from his pen have been preserved. They include sonatas and dances, in which Döbel sometimes makes use of double stopping. The Sonata in e minor includes a passage over a basso ostinato. The dances give us some idea of the music played in everyday life, and these dances are probably not very different in character from the music which Telemann heard in Poland and which was such a source of inspiration for him.
Composers of the German-Austrian violin school are well represented on disc, but a large part of the repertoire is still unknown. No fewer than five pieces played here are recorded for the first time. Because of that this disc is an important addition to the catalogue. Moreover, the performers make use of particularly appropriate instruments: a violin by Jacob Stainer, an organ of 1642 in meantone temperament and choir pitch and a chromatic harpsichord with 31 keys per octave. In addition, Plamena Nikitassova makes use of a playing technique which was common at the time, but is not that often practised these days: a low position on the chest, based on 17th-century descriptions. The booklet says: “The very shifts of position that are indispensable to virtuoso performances are thereby made considerably more difficult – yet in return, this long forgotten technique allows for new resonances and possibilities of expression. Many nuances of the articulation become more directly perceptible to the ear; the greater proximity to the vocal idiom lets the music ‘speak’ in a different manner”. This is probably not immediately recognizable for the average listener, especially not without a direct comparison with another way of playing. However, even without knowing all about such technicalities one can enjoy these performances, which display the qualities of the repertoire to its full glory. Nikitassova delivers impressive performances, technically and musically. She receives apt support from her colleagues, especially Jörg Andreas Bötticher, who also comes up with a good performance of the Toccata III in e minor by Johann Caspar Kerll. My only reservation is the recording: the miking of the violin is a bit too close for comfort.
Article's source: Music Web International, by Johan van Veen