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Johann Paul von WESTHOFF (1656-1705)
Complete Suites for Solo Violin:-

Suite in A major (1683)
Six Suites for Solo violin (1696): No. 1 in A minor; No. 2 in A major; No. 3 in B flat major; No. 4 in C major; No. 5 in D minor; No. 6 in D major
Kolja Lessing (violin)
Rec. Hans Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden Südwestrundfunk, November 2002
CAPRICCIO 67 083 [55.55]

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The little-known Johann Paul von Westhoff, Dresden-born, was a violinist, composer and something of a prodigious linguist as well. From his teenage years he was a language teacher to the princes of Saxony and later became Professor of Foreign languages at Wittenberg, though when he died he was a secretary to the Court of Weimar. These pioneering sonatas, the first such complete cycle of solo violin works before Bach, are constant feasts of polyphony and sensitively laid out for the instrument. That they have been neglected for so long – they were really only re-encountered (re-discovered sounds too melodramatic since they had been known, albeit many dictionaries ignored them) in the 1970s – is not an index of their paucity of invention. It would be objectively true however to say that judged by the constant expressive demands of Bach, or the idiosyncratic inventiveness and technical novelty of Biber, or even Pisendel’s command, these sonatas occupy a somewhat lower rung of invention.

They date from 1683 – the date of publication of the six movement Suite – to 1696, nine years before Westhoff’s death. He was clearly a melodist of no little talent; there’s no meandering or lack of concision. Since none of the movements breaches the three minute mark, compression of musical ideas and linear working out is the order of the day and the rewards are plentiful especially in this, the first recording of the complete sonatas on disc (though Elizabeth Wallfisch has recorded II, IV, V and VI for Hyperion). The influences on the 1683 Suite are prevailingly French with a Sarabande that demands good bowing and an accurate trill – both in evidence here – as well as the ability to sustain melodic impulse. In the First of the 1696 set we find a pleasing component of Westhoff’s compositional armoury – he was an energetic composer and wrote correspondingly energetic Courantes which thrive on motion and a sense of direction. In some of the sparer movements, the Sarabande of No.2 for example, Lessing applies some discreet ornamentation and it’s invariably apposite. To me this movement is one of the highlights of the set - intriguingly various and delightful.

Similarly the Allemande that opens No.5 (these are incidentally all four-movement works in classic dance form; Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue) is serious but lyrical with some rhetorical pauses that are well judged by Lessing. The final Gigue has a hunting-like motif that shows some of the variety the composer imparts. The opening Allemande of the last Suite is full of great delicacy and clarity and the concluding Gigue is vibrant and vocalised and makes a fine conclusion to these far too little known works; those moments when Westhoff departs from strict form and embraces the rustic as well as the courtly are invariably delightful.

The recording derives from the radio studio in Baden-Baden and is of excellent quality; not cold at all. Lessing writes the impressive notes and has dedicated the recording to his baby daughter and there’s a delightful picture of the proud father with her; let’s hope he’s in at the birth of a revival of interest in Westhoff as well.

Jonathan Woolf

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