There are people who think that the music of
the 19th and 20th centuries is much more complicated and technically
demanding than the music of the previous century - perhaps with
some exceptions, like Johann Sebastian Bach or some masters of
the renaissance. And in regard to violin technique, the name of
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber is often referred to as someone whose
music displays an extraordinary amount of virtuosity.
But this recording impressively shows that there
were many other composers who wrote complex works which demand
highly sophisticated technique. Most of the names on this CD are
little known, and some of the works recorded here don’t get the
attention they deserve; they hardly appear in concert programmes
and on CD.
A selection of pieces like this could easily
result in a hotchpotch of styles without any inner coherence.
Fortunately that is not the case here. The programme has been
put together intelligently. All the pieces are by composers from
Italy or from Austria and Germany who were strongly influenced
by the Italian style. They are also connected by their rhetorical
character, which implies that these works are not mere 'showpieces'.
Nevertheless, they are all technically demanding. This can be
explained by the fact that most composers have written these pieces
for their 'own' instrument, probably even to be played by themselves.
The fact that in the Sonata 'La Monica' by Böddecker the
dulcian plays first fiddle and this part is very virtuoso reflects
the composer's own mastery of the instrument.
These works may not be mere 'showpieces', that
doesn't mean they didn't surprise the audience which heard them.
Johann Paul von Westhoff is a good example. The French king Louis
XIV nicknamed this Sonata 'La Guerra'. When he heard the passage
which is written in the 'concitato' style - which we know, for
example, from Monteverdi's 'Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda'
- he was totally astonished and asked Von Westhoff to repeat that
passage several times. Hence this passage got the description
‘La guerra cosi nominata di sua maestà’. The fact that
Louis XIV obviously wasn't aware of the 'stile concitato' shows
that in the second half of the 17th century it was already something
of the past. The fact that Von Westhoff used it, on the other
hand, is an indication that German music was firmly rooted in
the Italian style, and that the rhetorical character of the 'stile
concitato' was something which appealed to German composers. Another
indication of the roots in the Italian music of the early 17th
century is the Sonata 'La Monica' by Böddecker, which is
basically nothing but a set of 'diminutions', so well-known from
composers like Dalla Casa and Bassano. Another one is Bovicelli,
also represented here.
Anybody who knows the music of Biber will recognize
characteristics of his music in some of the compositions recorded
here. One of them is the frequent and quick alternation of slow
and fast passages. In the Sonata in d minor by Böddecker,
for instance, there are no less than eight tempo indications;
in Von Westhoff’s Sonata La Guerra ten.
Another feature is the double stopping which
is used in almost every piece here: the exception is Muffat’s
Sonata, a piece which also differs from the others in that it
is a representative of the ‘goûts réunis’. Muffat
studied both in Paris and Rome, and attempted to unite the French
and Italian styles with the German.
Something which Biber seemingly wasn’t terribly
interested in is quite prominent here: the use of a popular or
sacred song as starting point for a set of variations. Palestrina’s
madrigal ‘Io son ferito ahi lasso’ was a popular subject for diminutions
like those of Bovicelli recorded here. They were actually written
for the cornetto, and although they certainly can be played on
the violin, in my opinion they do sound better and more idiomatic
on the cornetto. Böddecker took another popular Italian song
to compose variations: ‘La Monica’, a secular song which Frescobaldi,
for instance, used as cantus firmus for one of his masses. Böddecker’s
Sonata sopra La Monica contains a virtuoso part for the dulcian,
which is hardly different in character from a violin part. Its
many short notes and brilliant passages are extremely demanding,
reflecting the skills on the instrument of the composer. The violin
mostly takes a back seat by just playing the melody, whereas the
dulcian plays diminutions.
Another extraordinary example of a variation
work is the anonymous ‘Contrapunct sopra la Baßigaglos d’Altr’,
a strange title which isn’t explained in the booklet. It is a
series of variations on the popular Lutheran chorale melody of
‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’. It is attributed to
Nicolaus Adam Strungk, who was another great virtuoso on the violin,
whose works were loved and studied by J. S. Bach. He once met
Corelli and impressed him so much that the Italian said: "Sir,
if I’m called Arcangelo, you should be called Arcidiavolo".
The CD ends with a Chiacona by Antonio Bertali,
who had a strong influence on composers for the violin in central
Europe. The chaconne was a much loved form of composition in the
baroque, and this is a fine and in many ways extraordinary specimen
of the genre. It is exceptionally long – the theme is repeated
159 times! – and remarkable for its frequent modulations.
This is a remarkable recording because of the
programme, but also because of the performance. Manfredo Kraemer
has resisted the temptation to use this music to ‘show off’. He
certainly shows his own virtuosity in a very impressive way, but
never it is a purpose in itself. He uses his technical skills
to reveal the content of every piece. He displays a clear understanding
of the rhetorical character of the pieces he has chosen, for example
in the articulation and use of dynamics and his differentiation
in colouring. The fact that he has been a member of Musica antiqua
Köln has probably a lot to do with that.
Josep Borrás also shows his technical
abilities in Böddecker’s Sonata sopra La Monica and in the
concluding Chiacona by Bertali. This last work is brilliantly
realised, not only by Kraemer, but also by the other players who
realise the basso continuo in such a way that the whole work is
clearly structured and gets an incredible rhythmic ‘drive’.
Whether the use of bells at the end of the anonymous
variations on ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ is something
asked for in the score isn’t told in the booklet. Is it too harsh
to say that it is a little kitschy? I could have done without
Anyway, I recommend this recording very strongly.
Music and performance are of utmost importance.
Johan van Veen